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?
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.
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)
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
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.
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.