What is a Lawyer, Anyway?

Understanding legal lingo

In the U.S., laws are almost impossible to avoid. Laws govern how businesses operate, establish government powers, protect the public from undue harm, establish order and consequence and more. Laws can be massive and overarching or narrowly specific. But the thing they tend to have in common is that they are often complicated and difficult for the average person to thoroughly understand.

That’s where lawyers come in. Lawyers are people who have completed formal training in the law and have become licensed to practice, meaning their state has confirmed that they meet certain standards of legal knowledge and professional character. With that license, a lawyer puts their knowledge into practice, helping others interpret and apply the law in all manner of situations, and representing people and entities in legal proceedings.

What Is a Lawyer, and What Do They Do?

“There are an infinite number of ways to describe what it is that lawyers do,” says Thomas Nelson, president of the Minnesota Bar Association.

Lawyers work on behalf of others; some lawyers represent plaintiffs—those who bring a grievance to the court—and others represent defendants—those who are being accused by a plaintiff. “Those defendants might be corporations, or they might be individuals, or they might be other entities,” Nelson says.

The types of legal cases a lawyer might handle can be divided into civil and criminal. “Civil usually means how to handle money and money-related matters or civil rights, for example, and sometimes in injunctive or equitable relief,” Nelson explains. “Criminal usually means representing either a criminal defendant or the prosecution.”

Then there are public, private and corporate lawyers. A public defender is paid by the government to provide legal defense to anyone charged with a crime who does not already have a private defense attorney. A prosecutor represents the government in bringing charges against alleged criminals and upholding the rule of law. “Both of those roles are essential in the criminal justice system to see that justice is done,” Nelson says, “that prosecutions are fair, that defendants are represented and that judges and juries have a chance to reach a just verdict or resolution.” Another type of public lawyer represents government entities in any number of legal matters.

A private law firm is an independent business. Any client can hire a private lawyer or firm to represent them in any legal matter, whether civil or criminal. Private lawyers can choose which cases they will or will not take.

Lawyers can also work for corporations. “Those lawyers are employees or officers working inside of public or private corporations or other entities,” Nelson says, “and their job is to manage and lead the corporation in terms of legal risks and business opportunities.”

When people think of lawyers, often the first thing that comes to mind is a courtroom. Many lawyers (although not all) do end up arguing in court. But depending on their practice area, their day-to-day work may include much more than speaking to a judge or jury. For example, “If you’re a private law firm trial lawyer, then you’re spending a lot of time on courtroom matters, on either hearings or trials,” Nelson says. “You’re working with a lot of people on research and briefing, and you’re working with a lot of people on what’s called discovery, which is finding out the information that the other side has.”  

No matter what type of work a lawyer is doing, they are bound to a certain standard. According to the  American Bar Association, a lawyer’s basic responsibilities are to uphold the law and protect their client’s rights. Lawyers are also guided by a set of rules for professional conduct.

“It’s not just a business or a trade or a skill, it’s a profession,” Nelson says. “There are obligations in terms of public service, and you take an oath as a lawyer to uphold and advance justice. You have an obligation as a lawyer to follow the rules, and there are very detailed ethical rules that govern the profession. It’s a special profession; it’s a privilege to be a lawyer.”

What’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

When searching for legal help, you will likely notice that there are multiple terms to refer to lawyers. In the U.S., there is little to no distinction between the terms “attorney” (or “attorney-at-law”) and “lawyer.” Many use the terms interchangeably, including the ABA, which notes that a lawyer may also be called an attorney, counsel or counselor.

Another distinction you may see when searching for a lawyer is the suffix attached to a name: “J.D.” or “Esq.” J.D. stands for juris doctorate and indicates that a person has obtained a law degree. “Esq.” stands for “Esquire” and indicates that a person is licensed by their state bar association to practice law.

However, there are no laws requiring the use of suffixes. Some licensed attorneys will use “J.D.” or no suffix at all; others will use “Esq.” on formal communications or legal documents, but not in common correspondence.

In short, these terms are not always the best way to determine if a lawyer is qualified. The most reliable way to find out if an individual is licensed to practice in your state is to consult with your state bar association, either by phone or by searching their online directory.

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