Legalese to English: Types of Lawyers

A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone in the healthcare industry who kept saying she needed a “contract attorney”.  While I knew that she actually meant she needed a “transactional attorney” to handle a matter involving a contract, it made me pause. It struck me that even a highly intelligent, educated executive didn’t know the right terms to use to get the type of lawyer she needed.  So, here you have it, a Legalese to English quick guide for understanding terms that describe lawyers.  (Hold on, this page is strictly PG!).  Another time I’ll focus on other areas, such as basic words involved in lawsuits, or areas of practice.

Litigator:  This type of attorney handles lawsuits at the trial court level.  Often they also represent people or businesses in matters handled by government agencies such as the Labor Commissioner.  They may or may not also function as one or more other types of attorney.

Transactional Attorney:  This type of attorney handles – you guessed it – various types of transactions.  It can be as complicated as a merger between huge international corporations, or as simple as writing a basic contract to provide goods or services. 

Appellate Attorney:  This type of attorney handles matters that have been appealed after a ruling by a lower court or a government agency.

Patent Attorney:  This actually may not be an attorney at all.  Rather, a patent attorney is someone who has the required education (such as physics, biology, mathematics, or engineering), passed an examination administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (US PTO), and been admitted to represent clients before the US PTO.

Contract Attorney:  Contrary to what it sounds like, a contract attorney is not an attorney who handles contracts.  That would be a transactional attorney (see above).  Rather, a contract attorney is a licensed attorney who has contracted to work for another firm or lawyer, but is not a regular employee. 

Appearance Attorney: This is an attorney who, like a contract attorney, is not a regular employee of the firm representing the client.  This type of attorney only handles a specific court (or agency) appearance.  Generally, use of an appearance attorney is limited to appearances that do not require in depth knowledge of the case. 

Specialist:  In California, a “certified specialist” has passed an additional examination given by the State Bar for a particular area of law.  Not every area has a certified specialist designation available.  For example, in California, as of the time of writing this article there is no such thing as a “specialist” in employment law.  While the term is sometimes used to help someone understand the lawyer’s main focus area, really it is being used incorrectly in that context.

 Of Counsel:  This term actually has four different meanings, according to the American Bar Association.  It can be a retired partner who remains affiliated with a firm.  It can be a part-time practitioner who works on a different basis than regular lawyers at the firm (e.g., law professors who are affiliated with a firm).  It can be a lawyer who is with a firm in a senior level but for a variety of reasons is not yet a full partner.  It can also be a similarly senior attorney who does not expect to ever become a full partner.  The terms “special counsel” and “counsel” are sometimes used interchangeably with “Of Counsel”.


© Alexandra M. Steinberg 2016 All rights reserved.