A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

August 20, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

I would like to know two things:

1. What is the difference between an attorney and a lawyer? According to Webster's they are synonyms--but there has to be more to the story.

2. Why do attorneys/lawyers write on yellow legal pads? And why are the pads longer than the average 8-1/2 x 11?

I guess that's three things ... oh well. Please enlighten me.

You know you're on your way to becoming a lawyer when your questions multiply without even thinking about it (either that or you're like a lawyer who recently told me, "I became an attorney because I couldn't do math").

Are lawyer and attorney synonyms? Essentially yes. Around our office we have many other synonyms for lawyer as well, most of them muttered between clenched teeth. But I digress. According to several dictionaries, a lawyer is somebody who can give legal advice and has been trained in the law. An attorney is somebody legally empowered to represent another person, or act on their behalf.

So if you give somebody "power of attorney," that doesn't mean they suddenly become the comic book hero, "Super Litigator," it means they can legally sign papers and make decisions for you in the area in which you've given them that power. In many, perhaps most, cases, lawyers are given power of attorney--but it doesn't have to be that way.

In everyday usage, the terms are virtually synonymous. Indeed, a quick poll of lawyers at my office found none who really thought there was any difference. But if we stick to our dictionary guns, there is a definite distinction.

As a side note, the British have several additional terms for people who practice law. "Lawyer" is a general term describing all of them. "Solicitors" do most of the office work, draft documents, talk to clients, etc., and may only appear as advocates in the lower courts. "Barristers" do most of the trial work, especially in the higher courts, where they are the only ones who may act as advocates. "Attorney" has pretty much the same meaning in Britain as in America--one who acts on behalf of another.

Why use yellow pads? Because they are allegedly (like the use of that lawyerly term?) easier on the eyes than white paper. And for people who have to write and read a lot, it makes sense to use something that's easier on the eyes. Nowadays, though, yellow paper is becoming more difficult to find as many offices switch to white paper, which can be recycled more easily.

What about the long paper? Well, I was going to make the standard cracks about lawyers needing 30% more space than normal folks to say the same thing. But a quick check of Cecil's archives found that not only did he already answer this question (see http://www.straightdope.com/classics/ a3_016.html), but he dissed that joke as well. So never mind. Hmph.

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