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?

  • 3
    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?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 28, 2011 at 11:28
  • I didn't post it, but it would be inaccurate.
    – Marcin
    Jun 28, 2011 at 18:15
  • Attorney at law, Attorney Means = to act for another, represent. At Law = Common law. So really this is a faults claim because this is really how it should read, attorney at equity because equity deals with statutory law, not common, there are no statutes in common law. Basically statutory is not real law, its more like public rule, policy or public code. The way i see it is statutory law is for the special interest and common law is for the people. At least that's what it serves.
    – user73234
    Apr 26, 2014 at 2:14
  • 1
    @Rebel Law and equity were two different court systems, one dealing with monetary claims and one dealing with compelling certain actions (delivery of land or goods, forbidding or requiriing certain conduct). Both of these courts had provisions that derived from common law and statute.
    – bib
    May 1, 2014 at 19:04
  • 1
    I qualified as a UK & European Patent Attorney (no "at law"). That's another type of attorney.
    – TrevorD
    Apr 19, 2016 at 23:33

6 Answers 6


Merriam–Webster defines an attorney as:

one who is legally appointed to transact business on another's behalf

Wikipedia notes this usage in such phrases as "power of attorney" and "attorney-in-fact".

  • 1
    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?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 27, 2011 at 20:02
  • 2
    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, 2011 at 20:18
  • Attorney-in-fact is now an americanism, though.
    – Marcin
    Jun 27, 2011 at 20:20

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

  • 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, 2011 at 14:20
  • @Colin: Lawyers say "attorney" all the time. It's just awkward to avoid referring to the office.
    – Marcin
    Jun 28, 2011 at 18:16
  • 5
    I'm a barrister in England which means I am a lawyer, an advocate but not an attorney-at-law. I'd have to retrain as a solicitor to be an attorney-at-law (though it is unclear what having a right to litigate might mean - that is so new we haven't worked it out). An attorney at law could act in someone's place for legal purposes (eg by going on the court record). Barristers have never had that role. May 8, 2014 at 7:09
  • @FrancisDavey: Many thanks; I've always wondered what the distinctions were, since on this side of the puddle we don't use both terms.
    – keshlam
    Sep 30, 2014 at 23:51
  • @keshlam - the very old historical origin was that barristers were useful people to stand up in court. If they made a technical error (easily done in early Common Law pleadings) they could be disavowed by their client because they were not an attorney and the barrister's actions were not deemed to be the clients. A legal fall guy if you like. Oct 1, 2014 at 7:41

My professional license says that I am an Attorney and Counselor at Law in Washington State, USA. I represent clients in courts of law and equity, which are no longer separate courts in most states. When I achieved my Juris Doctorate, I was a law graduate and a lawyer. When I passed the bar exam, passed the background check and made the oath as an officer of the court, I received the state-issued license to be an attorney at law.

The gist of attorney is the authority to do some legal act for someone else.

An attorney-in-fact requires no education in the law. A principal appoints an attorney-in-fact as the principal's agent to perform some act with legal consequence, often in the absence of the principal. For example, a military officer assigned overseas might appoint his mother as his attorney-in-fact to conduct his banking transactions, to execute contracts for him, or to buy real property in his name.

Professors in US law schools are usually lawyers who do not have the license to practice as attorneys at law. Judges in the United States are usually lawyers, and most of them at one time were licensed as attorneys at law. Professors and judges do not represent clients, so they will often let the attorney license lapse rather than pay the hundreds of dollars every year to maintain it.


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.

  • The literal meaning may have been "turn to", but the actual meaning was "turn over", i.e., to delegate. Mar 23, 2014 at 1:35
  • It might also be related to the word that means "to twist", and some attorneys are very good at this. Sep 30, 2014 at 21:56

In its entry for "Attorney at law," Black's Law Dictionary (1968) has an interesting quotation from Rapalje & Lawrence, A Table of American and English Cases (1882):

The term "attorney at law," as used in the United States, usually includes "barrister," "counsellor," and "solicitor," in the sense in which those terms are used in England. In some states, as well as in the United States supreme court, "attorney" and "counsellor" are are distinguishable, the former term being applied to the younger members of the bar, and to those who carry on the practice and formal parts of the suit, while "counsellor" is the adviser, or special counsel retained to try the cause.

I don't know whether the broad, general distinction between attorney at law and counselor that Rapalje & Lawrence describes remains true, but I believe that referring to a party's in-court representative at trial as counselor or counsel is still standard in many jurisdictions.


Attorneys [-at-law] in early American history were those who were supposed to be learned in the law, and were designated as one's legal representative - a person who was authorized to appear in court and speak for a person on legal matters, and to make legal decisions for them, often in their absence. Attorneys were officers of the court.

Attorney - "such a person who by consent, commandment, or request, takes heed, sees, and takes upon him the charge of other men's business, in their absence." Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language. London, 1770.

A counselor was something quite different - "One that gives advice; a confident [sic]; a bosom friend . . . one that is consulted in a case of law." Johnson's, 1770.

The Founders of the United States knew the difference, typically mistrusted attorneys as loyal to the British courts, and that's why the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of the accused to have "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

The Supreme Court has used attorney and counsel interchangeably in many cases, directing police to advise persons in custody of their "right to an attorney."

When the accused goes to court with a lawyer, that person acts as their attorney, not as counsel, meaning that the defendant has to keep quiet, and only the attorney is typically allowed to address the court.

An attorney is simply someone who has been given the authority to act for another person. In the U.S., they are admitted to practice in court as attorneys-at-law. If you give a person your power-of-attorney, they can act as your attorney-in-fact, to do whatever you authorize them to do. Most often, powers-of-attorney are granted to authorize a person to execute legal documents, as in real estate transactions, or to make medical decisions, but they can be granted for many purposes.

  • The question is about whether there are other kinds (or labels) for attorneys other than attorney-at-law. This starts off like it is explaining things but then turns towards a judgment of the American legal system which doesn't address the linguistic question. Did you accidentally leave out the examples of something else in 'attorneys-at-something-else'?
    – Mitch
    Apr 19, 2016 at 21:58
  • Yes, there are other kinds of attorneys. An attorney is someone who has been given the authority to act for another person. If they are acting in legal proceedings, they are attorneys-at-law. If they are acting for you with regard to other areas, they may be empowered with your power-of-attorney, so that they can act as your attorney-in-fact, to do whatever you authorize them to do. Most often, powers-of-attorney are granted to authorize a person to execute legal documents, as in real estate transactions, or to make medical decisions, but they can be granted for many purposes.
    – Paul Grant
    Apr 19, 2016 at 23:14
  • 2
    You should edit you answer to remove the tendentious parts but add in the info about 'in-fact'. That way you would be providing the OP with an actual answer.
    – Mitch
    Apr 20, 2016 at 0:07

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.