Imagine this: you are in over your head with some legal issues, and you know you should get professional help. You begin the daunting process of finding the right representation. Friends are referring their lawyers, you have Googled the best lawyers on the eastern seaboard, and you prepared a list of questions to review with the shortlist you’ve put together. You end up calling an old college friend who you know went to law school hoping for a friendly face during this process, but he mentions he is not an attorney.

Suddenly, you are even more confused. He’s a lawyer, he must be an attorney, right? Aren’t they the same thing?

Maybe not.

It is important to note that while an attorney is a lawyer, a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney.

The Difference Between an Attorney and Lawyer

An attorney, or an attorney-at-law, is someone who may practice in a court of law and is legally qualified to prosecute and defend clients in court.

The title of “lawyer” does not always mean someone may practice law. Completing law school in the United States makes someone a lawyer, but that is only the first credential to becoming an attorney. Following law school, a lawyer must also pass the bar exam in a particular jurisdiction to be legally allowed to practice law.

If a lawyer passes the bar exam in one state but then moves to another, they may not practice law in their new state until they complete several official steps for transfer, including potentially taking another exam.

Why Passing the Bar is an Important Distinction

Law schools may follow the same general curriculum, but each school is different, and most states have varying laws and rules for practicing. Just because someone completes law school, it doesn’t mean they are experts in the particular laws in each and every jurisdiction or specialty. These require individual exams and/or certifications to test intricate and comprehensive knowledge in the subject.

There are also a great many lawyers out there. Using bar exam results to qualify potential team members helps employers better choose candidates for their firms from the large pool of applicants entering the job market each year. Without common exams, it would be difficult to understand the full competencies of lawyers graduating from countless different programs around the country.

How to Determine if a Lawyer is an Attorney in North Carolina

When in doubt, the best way to find a lawyer is through people you trust. Once you get some names, you can use the North Carolina State Bar Association’s directory of licensed lawyers to confirm that your short-listed choices are qualified to practice in the state.

If you need to start from scratch on your list of potential lawyers, the North Carolina State Bar also has a list of board-certified specialists for each city in North Carolina. If you know what type of legal representation you need – for example, Family Law, Criminal Law, Bankruptcy Law, Workers’ Compensation Law, Residential or Commercial Property Law, Immigration Law, etc. – you can find a list of potential candidates in your area.