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The different terms for “lawyer”

Jan 11

From time to time when people see me out of the office they will greet me with “Hello, lawyer Givens” or “Good morning Solicitor” or “How are you Councilor?” etc.  I have often been asked what the distinction is between these and other names given to a “lawyer.” 

In the United States, a lawyer is simply a person who is authorized or licensed to practice law. Working as a lawyer involves the practical application of legal theories and knowledge to solve specific problems, or to advance the interests of those who retain (or hire) lawyers to perform legal services. Most other common names given to a lawyer come from our legal system’s English heritage. Unlike here in the United States, in England the legal profession and the duties of different types of lawyers are quite complicated. Historically, the different English classifications for a lawyer were broken down into “Counselors” “Barristers” “Attorneys” and “Solicitors.”

The main division between legal responsibilities in England was between Barristers and Solicitors. Essentially, Barristers represent clients as their advocate before the court. They speak in court and present the case before a judge or jury. In some jurisdictions they undertake additional training in order to hone their skills with evidence law, ethics, and court practice and procedure. In contrast, Solicitors generally engage in preparatory work and advice, such as drafting and reviewing legal documents, dealing with and receiving instructions from the client, preparing evidence, and managing the day-to-day administration of a matter. A Solicitor has more direct access with clients. In fact, Barristers are rarely hired by clients directly but instead are retained (or instructed) by Solicitors to act on behalf of clients. The confusion between these two divisions is probably why this distinction was dropped by our fore-fathers.

The word “attorney” by itself means someone who is legally appointed or empowered to act for another person. An attorney does not have to be a lawyer. For example when you give someone “power of attorney” they become your “attorney in fact” and can perform certain designated tasks on your behalf. In English legal history, the term “attorney-at-law” was closely associated with a Solicitor, because only a Solicitor could legally act on a clients behalf in that legal system.

Contrary to popular belief, the term “Counselor” does not refer to a lawyer’s common practice of counseling his or her client, but again is a legal distinction made in the English system of law. In English history a Counselor was a type of Barrister. “Barrister” is a professional title awarded by one of the four “Inns of Court” of England and could be used as an every-day title. “Counsel” or “Counselor” was used to refer to a Barrister currently involved in an ongoing case. In England, it was customary to use the third person when addressing a Barrister during a case. For example, the court would say “Counsel is asked to advise the court” rather than “You are asked to advise the court.” So, the court would refer to a Barrister as a Counselor or Counsel only during an ongoing case, never “on the street” so to speak.

Other common terms for “lawyer” such as “shark” and “shyster” are usually only used locally by Johnny Roberts and really have no historical legal significance.