Perhaps no other profession has as many variations in titles than that of lawyer. The titles attorney, lawyer, barrister and Esquire are frequently used, sometimes interchangeably, in the field of law. However, by definition, each has a unique meaning.
Generally speaking, an attorney, or attorney-at-law, is a person who is a member of the legal profession. An attorney is qualified and licensed to represent a client in court. By most definitions, an attorney may act on the client’s behalf and plead or defend a case in legal proceedings. The English word attorney has French origins, where it meant “a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.”
A lawyer, by definition, is someone who is trained in the field of law and provides advice and aid on legal matters. Because a lawyer also conducts suits in court proceedings and represents clients in various legal instances, the term has expanded to overlap the definition of attorney. In the U.S., attorney and lawyer are normally considered synonyms. The term lawyer has Middle English roots.
The word ‘barrister’ is used in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to describe legal counsel who are trial attorneys.
Finally, the word ‘Esquire’ (abbreviated Esq.) was originally a social rank above that of mere gentleman, allowed, for example, to the sons of nobles and gentry who did not possess any other title. A gentleman, on this basis, was designated Mr (before his name) whereas an Esquire was so designated (with no prefix before the name) after his name. A very late example of this distinction can be seen in the list of subscribers to The History of Elton by the Rev. Rose Fuller Whistler, published in 1882, which clearly distinguishes between subscribers designated “Mr” and those, of higher social position, designated “Esquire”. But even then this was somewhat old-fashioned.
In the United States, there are no titled gentry or nobility, but the suffix “Esq.” is commonly used to indicate that an individual is a lawyer, albeit not exclusively as there are no legal restrictions on the use of this suffix in the United States. This is a remnant of the United Kingdom practice, in which barristers claimed the status of Esquire and solicitors used the term “gentleman.” In the United States, these separate roles of legal counsel have been combined.