Skip to Content Top

What’s the Difference Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?


As recently as 2018, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported that there were over 1.3 million lawyers in the country—a 15% increase over the previous decade. But when the ABA went on to clarify their criteria for who was a lawyer, they referred to licensed practitioners. Technically, they were talking about attorneys. 

For many, the two terms are interchangeable. An attorney is a lawyer. The reverse, however, is not always true. A lawyer is not always an attorney, and therefore not necessarily counted on the ABA’s survey of how many “lawyers” there are in the country.

To be considered a lawyer, a person has to graduate from an accredited law school. To be sure, that is quite an accomplishment and takes three years of hard work. However, an attorney, those among the 1.3 million, is someone who has not only graduated from an accredited law school but has also passed the bar exam and been licensed to practice law in a particular state.

Given that not everyone who graduates from law school takes the bar exam or works as a licensed attorney, the actual population of lawyers in the country (i.e. those who have graduated from law school) is most likely significantly higher than 1.3 million.

What Attorneys Can Do That Lawyers Cannot

In addition to having passed the bar exam, attorneys also have several things they can do that lawyers cannot. For example, only attorneys – those who have passed the bar exam and been admitted to the bar of a particular jurisdiction – have the right to appear before the court on behalf of their clients. What’s more, is that one has to be an attorney to represent their clients outside of the courtroom when it comes to things like executing contracts. 

So, if you’re facing criminal charges in Lexington for drunk driving or a federal offense, or if you need to enforce the terms of a contract, you’ll probably want to enlist the aid of a licensed attorney – not just a lawyer, more specifically from a criminal defense attorney in Lexington. 

With the limits placed on those who have graduated law school but have not taken or passed the bar exam, it might seem as though being a lawyer and not an attorney would be ill-advised. That isn’t always the case, however, as there are a number of good jobs law school graduates can work in. 

Policy advising, working in the nonprofit sector, and other, similar jobs, are common for those who are lawyers but not attorneys. Because of how rigorous and valuable it is, some even think a JD (Juris Doctorate) is more beneficial than an MBA.

Kentucky Law School Statistics

The state of Kentucky has three law schools:

  • University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law
  • Salmon P. Chase College of Law (Northern Kentucky University)
  • Brandeis School of Law (Louisville)

From these three law schools and others around the country, there are currently over 13,500 lawyers in the state. As you might have guessed, not everyone who graduates from these three schools, or any other for that matter, passes Kentucky’s rigorous bar exam. 

The Kentucky Bar Exam has an overall passage rate that fluctuates from year to year but is often around 70%. While it might not be as difficult as California’s bar exam (which is known for being among the most challenging) it is easier than the bar exam in Wisconsin. However, that’s because the state doesn’t have a bar exam (at least for Wisconsin law school grads) and instead automatically admits all graduates of Wisconsin law schools to the state’s bar (this is known as diploma privilege).

As of 2020, University of Kentucky law school grads typically pass the bar exam (Kentucky’s and those in other states) at a rate of about 77%. Those who graduate from Louisville have a 71% passage rate and graduates of Northern Kentucky’s law school pass at a rate of about 61%. 

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
Share To: