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Why Do We Say “Attorney at Law”? Can You Be an Attorney at Anything Else?

published August 12, 2014

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We asked attorneys and other legal professionals throughout the country why we say "attorney at law"? Can you be an attorney at anything else? Several individuals responded and they all gave the same reason. We hope you enjoy their responses.

Because you can indeed be an Attorney In Fact (what you are when you are appointed through a Power of Attorney)

Michaela Barry
Managing Counsel
Barry Law Firm, PC

As opposed to attorney-in-fact, the relationship formed with a non-lawyer to whom you grant power of attorney for specific purposes, attorney at law designates it's a lawyer.

Brandon J. Huffman
Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC

There are attorneys at law who are legally trained lawyers and there are attorneys in fact who are not required to be legally trained. It is a very important distinction.

Ramsey A. Bahrawy, Esq.

When someone uses a power of attorney to act as the agent for someone else, they are referred to as the "attorney in fact," showing a distinction between the types of "attorneys."

20+ years of estate planning work has demonstrated this distinction, many times.

Everett Sussman, Attorney at Law
The Law Offices of Everett G. Sussman

The term 'attorney at law' has its origins in the British legal system. There was distinction between a private attorney who was hired for pay in business or legal affairs; and an attorney at law or public attorney who was a qualified legal agent in the courts of Common Law. This distinction was eventually abolished in England at the turn of the 19th Century when lawyers became known as 'solicitors,' but in the Americas the term was adopted to refer to any practitioner of the law.

Matthew Reischer, Esq.

I operate the nation's largest nonprofit network of financial professionals (financial planners, investment advisors, CPAs, estate attorneys, etc.). Just as one can be an "attorney-at-law," providing legal representation to an individual, one can be an "attorney-in-fact," representing another in participating in and/or executing legal agreements.

Rob Drury
Executive Director of the Association of Christian Financial Advisors

If you are given power of attorney, you have a power that goes beyond mere agency, you can do binding things that do not require the principal's ratification.


The term "attorney at law" is an historical inheritance from England, where, until 1873, lawyers authorized to practice in the common law courts were known as "attorneys at law." That year, the Judicature Act abolished the term "attorney" in England and replaced it with "solicitor."

These days, there is little meaning to the "at law" addition (the same goes for identifying attorneys as "Esq."), since an attorney at law is simply an attorney. It does distinguish one, however, from an attorney-in-fact, which is an agent designated by an individual. The agent does not have to be a licensed attorney, as when someone is designated in a power of attorney.

Daniel J. Bernard
Law Office of Daniel J. Bernard

Well you could also be an "attorney-in-fact" which is someone exercising their authority under a Durable Power of Attorney.

Kimberli A. Taylor, Paralegal
Conover & Grebe, LLP

To answer the question, there is such a thing as an "attorney-in-fact." An "attorney in fact" is someone who has been designated, pursuant to either a Power of Attorney agreement, or some other operation of law, to be empowered with certain powers-- usually financial in nature. Thus, there is a difference between an "attorney at law" (someone who is admitted to practice law in a certain jurisdiction) and an "attorney in fact" (someone who is given specific powers to act in the name of another).

Bobby Kouretchian, Attorney
Koza Law Group

Our legal system recognizes different types of attorneys. Probably the most well-known is the attorney in fact, who is someone designated under a power of attorney. An attorney in fact doesn't have a client, they have a principal. An attorney in fact isn't authorized to represent their principal in court, or file legal actions on their behalf. An attorney at law is someone who is under a license from the court to practice law, and the designation implies that they are representing a client as a third party.

James R. Snell, Jr.
Attorney at Law
Law Office of James R. Snell, Jr.

The only distinction I know of is between an Attorney At Law, which means an attorney licensed to practice law before a court, and an Attorney In Fact, which is someone acting under a Power of Attorney. Both are technically attorneys, but you would typically never find someone with a Power of Attorney refer to themselves a "an attorney."

Scot Conway, California Attorney

The term "attorney at law" may seem redundant, but it is not when one understands the older meaning of the word "attorney." It originally meant representative. So an "attorney at law" was a representative of the law. Hence a "Power of Attorney" was the "power of the representative." An "attorney in fact" was a "representative based on situation" and so on.

Keoki Wallace
Managing Attorney

I'm not a lawyer. But, the definition of attorney is to act on behalf of someone like in business or law. Attorney at Law merely distinguishes what type of attorney.

Michael Allen
Author of A River in the Ocean, When You Miss Me, and Thoughts and Reconsideration

You can also be an "attorney in fact."

John Z Wetmore
Producer of "Perils For Pedestrians" Television

An attorney at law is someone who has passed the bar examination and is permitted by the state to practice law. An attorney in fact is someone who can represent someone else through a power of attorney, a document that gives them certain powers to act on the person's behalf. Being an attorney in fact gives you the right to make decisions for the person who granted you the powers, but does not permit you to practice law - you must still hire an attorney (unless you are representing yourself). Conversely, an attorney at law can represent someone else in the practice of law, but cannot make decisions on their behalf, including whether to settle or any other decisions.

Thomas J. Simeone, Esq.
Simeone & Miller, LLP

Attorney at law distinguishes from an attorney in fact. The latter can be anyone to whom you have signed over decision making authority through a power of attorney. Most people can be an attorney in fact with a valid POA, but only those licensed can be an attorney at law.

Sean Morrison
Attorney at law

I believe this comes from the English system where you had law and chancery courts. You could be an attorney before the chancery court or before the law court. In the United States, for many years, some jurisdictions did have chancery division for civil cases and the law division for criminal cases. However, an attorney admitted to the bar of that state was authorized to practice before both.

Edrie A. Pfeiffer,
Hampton Roads Legal Services

The other most common term is "attorney in fact." Attorney simply means "one who represents another." Only licensed attorneys are attorneys at law. If someone wants to have you act for them, they draft a "power of attorney" and give you certain authority. For example, your company transfers you and you cannot attend the closing on your old house because you are now working elsewhere. You give a friend power of attorney to attend the closing and sign all the papers on your behalf.

Tom Reid
Chief Problem Solver
Certified Contracting Solutions, LLC

Anyone can be appointed to be an "Attorney in fact" which means they have been given power of attorney to do something specific (like signing something) for someone else.

An Attorney at law is someone who can be appointed to do things for other people in legal proceedings or in transactions.

I practice law in the Falkland Islands where the title is the much plainer Legal Practitioner!

Having said that, there is no Falkland Islands Bar as such and the Legal Practitioners Ordinance lists qualifications from elsewhere that are recognized here: these include titles such as Solicitors, Barristers, Advocates and even Proctors ... and, yes, Attorneys!

Ronnie MacLennan Baird
R J MacLennan Baird practicing as Ronnie MB - Law & Policy

I am a "restorative lawyer." I used to be an "attorney at law" and was a deputy attorney general for the state of Hawai'i (one of about 100).

I got into public health 20 years ago and since have been a health educator and a lawyer helping people heal after being harmed. I remain licensed as a lawyer and work with our local bar association on access to justice in our state.

-Lorenn Walker, J.D., M.P.H.

"Attorney at Law" comes from the English where some attorneys practiced at the Common Law Courts, hence attorney at law.

-Joan Wenner, J.D.

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published August 12, 2014

By Follow Me on
( 1508 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.