I’m watching a law- and court-related TV show, and the following terms are being used. What are the differences between them? I’m interested in the differences in connotation if there are any. Or are they more or less interchangeable?

  • litigator
  • counsel
  • attorney

I’ve looked the terms up in a dictionary but since I am not a native speaker of English, I don't understand the nuances in meaning.

Definitions according to Oxford Dictionary:

  • litigator
    • to litigate: resort to legal action to settle a matter; be involved in a lawsuit
  • counsel
    • a barrister or other legal adviser conducting a case
  • attorney
    • a person, typically a lawyer, appointed to act for another in business or legal matters
  • 2
    It's counsel, "a barrister or other legal adviser conducting a case" (although they are pronounced the same, so it's not easy to tell them apart from listening to a TV show)
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 17:39
  • In G.B., a solicitor or attorney does all sorts of legal work for clients but generally appears only in inferior courts. A barrister is a trial lawyer or litigator. In AmE counsel [see Leach's comment] and counselor are both, in one sense, general terms meaning "one who gives (legal) advice," the latter being the more formal term. See in "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage" by Bryan A. Garner.
    – user19148
    Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 17:52
  • 2
    In G.B., we don't use the term attorney; a litigator is just as likely to be a client as a lawyer; counsel would normally be a barrister, but the term is generally limited to lawyers providing legal advice. I'm not providing an answer to the question because the British system with which I'm somewhat familiar is so markedly different to the American way of doing things.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 18:20
  • Sorry @Andrew. I'm sure you are right and Garner is wrong. I have always suspected that Garner is not the more attendible author, and I have a proof of that now. Thank you.
    – user19148
    Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 19:02
  • @AndrewLeach: there is a distinction between litigant (who may or may not act in person) and litigator, who is a hired gun. But in principle your comment is dead right. Commented Aug 4, 2012 at 20:37

2 Answers 2


In U.S. practice, the terms are used as follows:

Litigator - an attorney whose practice is focused on litigation, that is lawsuits. This is mostly used to refer to people who specialize in civil suits (suits brought by someone other than a criminal prosecution agency) seeking an award of money or an injunction (a judicial order) requiring someone to do something or stop doing something.

She was a litigator specializing in intellectual property trial work.

Counsel - This is a general term for lawyer, also known as counselor. It is frequently used to refer to a lawyer who works exclusively for one company or one agency.

He was general counsel to the NBA.

After the outburst, the Judge said "Counselor, control your client."

Attorney - this is a general term for a lawyer in both the federal and state court systems in the U.S. In general, attorneys in the U.S. are permitted all types of practice (with a few minor exception) unlike the solicitor/barrister systems elsewhere.

The attorneys who graduated from that law school went on to various jobs as litigators, criminal lawyers, corporate lawers, and in-house counsel.

  • So is <litigator> only used to refer to those arguing in court? Or is it also used to refer to those lawyers who do not argue in court but helpout in background and case research?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 22:32
  • 1
    Litigators are involved in litigation. There are some back office lawyers who draft legal papers for litigation, but never go to court. They may or may not have their names on those court papers. They would probably be called litigators. There is no formal legal distinction, but there is a requirement that individuals who are going to appear in a given court be specifically admitted to that court. Many lawyers are generally admitted to a state court system, but not authorized to appear in other courts, such as federal trial or appellate courts.
    – bib
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 1:43
  • It may be helpful to add that, in describing the work that lawyers may do, litigation is used in contrast to transactional work. The latter stands for, e.g., drafting wills and contracts, arranging for the registration of trade marks, and preparing mergers of businesses; the lawyers whose practice is devoted to such work are not litigators, even though they still are lawyers/attorneys.
    – jsw29
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 16:55

I’m an attorney. All these terms mean the same thing—"lawyer"

  • 4
    Isn't it the case than many lawyers are clear that they do not do litigation? And are therefore never in a position to be called a litigator? Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 5:32

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