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I have wondered from time to time about the phrase "attorney at law." Are there other kinds of attorneys? Attorneys at arms? If not, why do we specify?

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Someone had posted an answer with "at law" versus "at equity," but it is gone. Could whoever posted it let me know if it was inaccurate? –  KitFox Jun 28 '11 at 11:28
I didn't post it, but it would be inaccurate. –  Marcin Jun 28 '11 at 18:15
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3 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

One definition of an attorney is "A person appointed to act for another in business or legal matters." See also http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/attorney. This usage is seen in such phrases as "power of attorney", which employs an attorney-in-fact.

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Oh, I see. So the "at law" means that they have a law degree, do you suppose? And "in fact" means they may or may not have a law degree? –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 20:02
It's not quite that simple, but basically yes. In the legal world, "lawyer" and "attorney" have a definition that requires the person so named to have a law degree and a bar card. A person can be a "representative" with power of attorney for another person without having a law degree or being a bar member, thus being an attorney in-fact, but the representative cannot be the person's legal representation (lawyer) without a bar card. –  KeithS Jun 27 '11 at 20:18
Attorney-in-fact is now an americanism, though. –  Marcin Jun 27 '11 at 20:20
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Attorney in its original meaning means to turn toward. Any person tasked with undertaking a business procedure is legally an attorney. Strictly speaking, a lawyer is NOT an attorney, until appointed (hired) to perform a legal task. Lawyers prefer to be called attorneys because the term doesn't carry the stigma which the term, lawyer does. People joke about lawyers, not attorneys.

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The literal meaning may have been "turn to", but the actual meaning was "turn over", i.e., to delegate. –  Peter Shor Mar 23 at 1:35
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Attorney in the US sense is an abbreviation for attorney at law, or public attorney. There are different types, like the private attorney.

Attorney at law or attorney-at-law, usually abbreviated in everyday speech to attorney, is the official name for a lawyer in certain jurisdictions, including, Japan, Sri Lanka and the United States.

The term was also used in England and Wales for lawyers who practised in the common law courts. In 1873, however, attorneys were redesignated solicitors (which had always been the title for those lawyers who practised in the courts of equity)

Source: Wikipedia


In English law, a private attorney was one appointed to act for another in business or legal affairs (usually for pay); an attorney at law or public attorney was a qualified legal agent in the courts of Common Law who prepared the cases for a barrister, who pleaded them (the equivalent of a solicitor in Chancery). So much a term of contempt in England that it was abolished by the Judicature Act of 1873 and merged with solicitor.

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

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Private attorneys still exist. –  Marcin Jun 27 '11 at 20:19
Edited and corrected, thanks! –  Hugo Jun 27 '11 at 20:43
In the UK, the only kind of attorney today is a person appointed to manage somebody else's affairs (for example in case of incapacity), so the term is never qualified. However, we almost always talk about the "power of attorney" being vested in somebody, and rarely use the word "attorney" to refer to the person. –  Colin Fine Jun 28 '11 at 14:20
@Colin: Lawyers say "attorney" all the time. It's just awkward to avoid referring to the office. –  Marcin Jun 28 '11 at 18:16
@Marcin: makes sense. Thanks. –  Colin Fine Jun 29 '11 at 13:00
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