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Lawyers, Prosecutors, and Attorneys

What is the difference between a prosecutor, an attorney, and a lawyer?

By
Michael W. Flynn
3-minute read
The word “lawyer” has Middle English roots and refers to anyone who is trained in the legal field and gives legal advice. So, a person who has graduated from law school, but who has not yet taken or passed the state bar exam, might call himself a lawyer because he has legal training and can give legal advice, but he is not an attorney-at-law because he is not licensed by the state to do so. Well, we all convinced ourselves of this distinction while enduring the excruciating four-month gap between taking the bar exam and getting our results.  
 
That said, if someone calls my office and tells me he is either the lawyer or the attorney for the other side, I assume that person is licensed to practice law.  
 
A prosecutor is a legal officer who represents the state or federal government in criminal proceedings. In the United States, only a government entity can bring criminal charges against an accused. The attorney who represents the state or federal government is the prosecutor. In some counties, the chief prosecutor is called the “district attorney,” and the attorneys that work with him are called “deputy district attorneys.” In federal cases, a “United States Attorney” brings criminal proceedings against an accused. A “special prosecutor” generally is an attorney from outside the government appointed by an attorney general or Congress to investigate a government official for misconduct while in office. 
 
On the other side of a criminal trial is defense counsel. When defense counsel is paid for by the government, that attorney is called a “public defender.”  
 

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