An attorney refers to any professional who is licensed to practice law in one or more states. To become an attorney, one must complete law school (usually three years) and pass a state bar examination. Every state has its own bar association, and the professional must be licensed in every state that they intend to practice in (though some states have cross-licensing programs).
In the U.S., attorneys must also pass various background checks and must also pass a professional responsibility test before they can practice law. Attorneys may work through a solo practice, or with other attorneys in a law firm.
Attorneys perform various tasks such as:
- Representing clients in a court of law
- Advising clients on their legal inquiries and concerns
- Researching laws and arguing in court
- Examining evidence for trial
- Engaging in discovery (obtaining documents for trial)
- Requesting appeals if possible
- Requesting damages for injuries
- Engaging in criminal defense or prosecution
Some attorneys practice as "specialists" in a given field, such as patent law, copyright law, and other areas. Most state laws require that the specialist attorney pass another exam or meet other requirements before they can represent themselves as a specialist.
In most cases, the terms "lawyer" and "attorney" are used interchangeably to refer to anyone who practices law. However, technically there is a distinction between the two terms. The term lawyer often refers to anyone with an educational background in law. This can include law professors, legal researchers, and other legal professionals.
In contrast the term "attorney" often refers to someone who is licensed to practice law, and who is currently practicing litigation on behalf of clients in court. But, most people use the terms interchangeably.
You may need to hire an attorney if you have any legal disputes, conflicts, or questions that need to be addressed immediately. Your attorney can represent you in court, help you file papers, and perform various other assignments for your case. Also, your attorney will be able to advise you regarding any important changes or updates to the law that might affect your case.