An attorney at law (or attorney-at-law) in the United States is a practitioner in a court of law who is legally qualified to prosecute and defend actions in such court on the retainer of clients. Alternative terms include counselor (or counsellor-at-law) and lawyer. There are currently 760,000 people earning a living as lawyers in the United States.

The United States legal system does not draw a distinction between lawyers who plead in court and those who do not, unlike many other common law jurisdictions (such as England and Wales, which distinguishes between solicitors and barrister, or, in Scotland, advocates), and civil law jurisdictions (such as Italy and France, which distinguish between advocates and civil law notaries). An additional factor which differentiates the American legal system from other countries is that there is no delegation of routine work to notaries public.

Practice of law

Once admitted to practice by the highest court of a state (the state supreme court), a function sometimes administered by the state’s bar association, an American attorney may file legal pleadings and argue cases in that state court, provide legal advice to clients and draft important legal instruments such as wills, trusts, deeds and contracts.

Arguing cases in the federal courts requires separate admission.

In some states, real estate closings may be performed only by attorneys, even though the attorney’s role in a closing may involve primarily notarization of documents and disbursement of settlement funds through an escrow account.

Actions that may be performed by lawyers are referred to as the practice of law. Practicing law includes interviewing a client to identify the legal question, analyzing the question, researching relevant law, devising legal solutions to problems and executing such solutions through specific tasks such as drafting a contract or filing a motion with a court.

Most academic legal training is directed to identifying legal issues, researching facts and law as well as arguing both the facts and law in favor of either side in any case.

For several years, law schools have sent through far more students than new job openings have become available. This leads to attorneys (once they pass the bar) seeking work in other occupations, either by choice or by the lack of employment opportunities. This has led to a market in legal temps or contract attorneys, where attorneys spend a certain period of time working on tasks such as discovery for a case.