If you’re facing a divorce or other family law issue, you’ve probably been advised to hire a lawyer or attorney to guide you through the process.

Hopefully, you’ll take that advice because it’s definitely not in your best interest to represent yourself in any legal matter. There’s simply too much at stake.

How do you choose, though, between a lawyer and an attorney? They’re both the same, right?

No. While the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are often used interchangeably, there are differences between the two. Knowing those differences can be crucial in making the best choice for your legal representation and save you a lot of money by getting it right the first time.

What Are the Differences Between a Lawyer and an Attorney?

There’s an easy way to remember the difference between the two.

  • A lawyer is someone who has studied law and has a working knowledge of it, but has not necessarily passed the California Bar Exam or be licensed to practice. Even though a lawyer may have a complete understanding of the legal system, they are unable to represent you in court if they don’t have a license.
  • An attorney, on the other hand, has successfully passed the bar exam, met the required moral character qualifications, and is licensed to practice law.

You’ll also be able to determine whether someone is a lawyer or attorney by his or her title.

For example, a lawyer may use the initials JD (juris doctor) after their name for having completed law school. Attorneys, on the other hand, often include the word “Esquire” or Esq. after their name to signify they’ve successfully passed the bar exam and are licensed to practice law.

As an often-quoted saying states, every attorney can be a lawyer but not every lawyer can be an attorney.

Is It Wise to Still Use a Lawyer?

While the decision should ultimately be based upon your needs, a lawyer can indeed be a valuable resource for you and perform a host of services.

For example, a lawyer can:

  • Give answers to your questions about legal procedures and lingo
  • Provide advice on a tax issue
  • Assist with composing a will or trust
  • Answer questions related to immigration matters
  • Help you establish a corporation or LLC (limited liability company) to protect your business interests.

Even though they may not have officially passed the California Bar Exam or be licensed, a qualified lawyer can still be an important and reliable legal resource for you.

When Should I Hire an Attorney?

If you’re involved in a civil lawsuit like divorce, you need the expertise of an attorney who specializes in family law.

A skilled attorney is the best option to help with:

  • Matters related to child custody, spousal support, asset division, etc.
  • Legal representation in court
  • Representation against the IRS (Internal Revenue Service)
  • Negotiating damages from a personal injury claim.

Again, only an attorney who is licensed to practice law in California will be able to represent you in court. It’s there where your attorney interprets the law and applies their working knowledge of it towards your needs.

Can I Use an Out of State Attorney?

You can, but that attorney must be licensed in at least one state and work under the supervision of a licensed California attorney. They cannot open an office here without being licensed by the state of California and registering with the State Bar.

How Do I Select The Right Lawyer or Attorney for Me?

It all comes down to finding the lawyer or attorney that’s the right fit for you.

  • Because complete honesty is necessary for your lawyer or attorney to successfully serve you, it’s key to finding someone with whom you’re comfortable.
  • Be sure to interview lawyers and attorneys who specialize in areas of law that affect your specific situation. For example, if you’re facing divorce or thinking about filing for divorce, make a list of family law attorneys in your area and take the time to interview them face-to-face. Explain your situation and concerns to them, and focus on those who have successfully handled situations or cases similar to yours.
  • If possible, speak with previous clients of the attorneys, and ask about their level of satisfaction.
  • Refrain from making an “on-the-spot” decision. Instead, make notes and take the time to think about it in the comfort of your home, away from distractions.

The key takeaway is to remember that the legal landscape is a completely different environment than anything you’ve encountered. One misstep can seriously impact you for the rest of your life. As difficult as it may be, resist the temptation to represent yourself legally; it rarely ends well.