Etymology Usage

Legal aid

Q: Why is a lawyer called an “attorney at law” and not an “attorney of law”? Doesn’t “at” refer to a place? An MD is a “doctor of medicine” not a “doctor at medicine.”

A: In American English, the terms “lawyer,” “attorney,” and “attorney at law” are pretty much interchangeable, according to Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd ed.). All three refer to “a licensed lawyer.”

The legal dictionary, written by Bryan A. Garner, says “lawyer” and “attorney,” the most common of these terms in the US, “are not generally distinguished even by members of the profession.”

However, these three terms have had different meanings in different places and times.

In England, for example, an attorney used to practice in common-law courts and a solicitor in equity courts.

But the term “attorney” developed “an unpleasant smell about it,” Garner writes, and “in the nineteenth century it was supplanted in England by solicitor.”

(As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the word “attorney” was often used reproachfully to mean something like “knave or swindler.”)

In the US, on the other hand, the term “attorney” has become a somewhat tony (or, as Garner puts it, more formal and less disparaging) version of “lawyer,” while “solicitor” has taken on an offensive whiff, as in signs like “No Peddlers or Solicitors.”

Why, you ask, is an attorney “at” law rather than “of” or “in” law? Doesn’t “at” refer to a place?

Well, all three prepositions were used in the past, according to published references in the OED, but they referred to the place where the attorney practiced, not to the practice of law itself.

The Oxford editors say “attorney-at-law” (they hyphenate the term) originally referred to a “professional and properly-qualified legal agent practising in the courts of Common Law (as a solicitor practised in the courts of Equity).”

Interestingly, the earliest OED citation for “attorney at law,” from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1768), refers to lawyers at admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, not courts of common law:

“An attorney at law answers to the procurator, or proctor, of the civilians and canonists.” (A procurator, or proctor, used to be a legal representative in English admiralty or ecclesiastical courts.)

Why, you might wonder, has the term “attorney at law” survived when “attorney” and “lawyer” can do the job just as well with two fewer words?

Well, we could be cynical and say that the kind of lawyer who feels it’s classy to be called an “attorney” would probably feel it’s even classier to be called an “attorney at law.”

But there’s a more respectable reason for the survival of the longer term. It distinguishes an “attorney at law” (a licensed lawyer) from an “attorney in fact” (someone with a power of attorney to act for another).

In fact, when the word “attorney” entered English in the 1300s (borrowed from Old French), it referred to someone “appointed or ordained to act for another; an agent, deputy, commissioner,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594):

I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office,
And will have no attorney but myself;
And therefore let me have him home with me.

By the 1400s, the word “attorney” was being used to mean a lawyer practicing in the common-law courts in England.

But around the same time it took on its negative sense. Here’s a later example from Alexander Pope’s essay Of the Use of Riches (1733): “Vile Attornies, now an useless race.”

And here’s one from The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell: “Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.’ ”

The word “lawyer,” which entered English around the same time as “attorney,” has roots in the Old English word for law, lagu.

From the beginning, according to the OED, it meant what it does now: “One versed in the law; a member of the legal profession.”

We’ll end with this proverb from The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), by Thomas Wilson: “The lawyer never dieth a begger. The lawyer can never want a livyng till the yearth want men.”

Check out our books about the English language