The Grammarphobia Blog

See you in court

Q: I was taught that you can’t just say that someone is an attorney. A person is a lawyer by profession, but only an attorney for a particular case. Have you ever heard this one?

A: Is there a difference between an “attorney” and a “lawyer”?

This is a perfect question for Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, who is all of the above. Since 1995 he has also been the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.

The new third edition of the Garner’s usage guide says the two terms “are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession – except perhaps that lawyer is often viewed as having negative connotations.”

“Thus one frequently hears about lawyer-bashing,” Garner’s adds, “but only the tone-deaf write attorney-bashing.”

It goes on to say: “Technically, lawyer is the more general term, referring to one who practices law. Attorney literally means ‘one who is designated to transact business for another.’ ” (This explains why we use the expression “power of attorney,” not “power of lawyer.” The power is subject to the limitations of the document.)

The usage guide remarks that Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, has written that “a lawyer is an attorney only when he has a client.”

But Garner’s dismisses that interpretation: “This distinction between lawyer and attorney is rarely, if ever, observed in practice.”

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