Today, the terms lawyer and attorney are often used interchangeably. In most situations, this usage is correct and the titles mean the same thing. But, traditionally, a lawyer is a person that has graduated law school, while an attorney is someone that both graduated law school and passed the bar exam.
Keep in mind that there really isn’t much of a distinction between the terms lawyer and attorney anymore. In Florida, the two words have the same meaning.
Attorney Licensing Requirements
Now, when it comes to understanding those that practice law, the important question is whether the person is licensed. Each state has its own licensing requirements for attorneys, and attorneys can typically only practice where licensed.
This means that, under most circumstances, if you have a case in Florida, you want an attorney that is licensed here. Let’s say, for example, you get into a car accident and want to pursue damages from an at-fault party. You’ll want to have a licensed attorney handle it.
Being licensed certifies that the attorney has met all of the requirements to join the state bar as set by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.
Specifically, to be licensed in Florida an attorney must have:
- Graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association
- Passed the bar examination, including a Florida-specific exam, a multistate multiple choice test, and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination
- Provided evidence of good moral character and fitness – this requires looking into the attorney’s background and any criminal record or disciplinary actions from other states, and
- Taken an oath stating that he or she will perform the obligations and responsibilities of an attorney.
Note that there is no requirement that an attorney be a Florida resident in order to be licensed in the state.
Unlicensed Law School Graduates
When an attorney does not pass the bar, they are typically referred to as a Juris Doctor or “JD.” This title indicates that the person has a law degree, but is not currently licensed. A JD cannot legally practice law of any kind.
Now, the practice of law would include things like offering legal advice, drafting documents for others, and representing someone in court. Note that it doesn’t matter if these services are offered for a reduced rate or no fee. Doing any of these actions is considered the Unlicensed Practice of Law, which is a third-degree felony in Florida.
But, while an unlicensed attorney can’t practice law in the traditional sense, there are certain jobs that he or she can do. Examples would be policy work, research, writing, teaching, and consulting.
Further, an attorney without a license is allowed to assist others with the practice of law. For example, the attorney could work in a paralegal capacity and help with research or editing drafts of court documents. However, these jobs must be performed under the supervision of a licensed attorney that signs off on all of the work.
Additional Board Certifications
Now, it’s common for some attorneys to pursue certifications beyond admission to the state bar. While these are optional for any practice area, they do show that the attorney has attained specialized knowledge in a certain area. Examples would be certifications in civil trial or tax law.
In most cases, to qualify for board certification, a lawyer must have practiced in that area for a number of years (typically 5 years). The attorney must have also attended a minimum number of hours of continuing legal education (typically 60 hours), and passed a written exam.
How to Find and Research Florida Attorneys
It’s important to make sure that your attorney is licensed in Florida. To do so, you can use the Florida Bar’s Find a Lawyer tool. The search function only requires that you know the lawyer’s name.
The results of the search will tell you whether the attorney is able to practice in the state, and whether he or she is currently in good standing with the bar. This means that the lawyer has kept up with all continuing legal education requirements and paid all fees.
You can also see what year the attorney was admitted to practice in Florida, what schools he or she attended, any board certifications held, and general practice areas. The tool will also provide the attorney’s contact information.
Further, the results will indicate whether or not the attorney has a disciplinary record. This would include any complaints against the attorney for ethical violations, such as misappropriation of client funds. Note that the state only maintains electronic records on attorneys for the past 10 years. If you want to look further back you would need to contact the Florida Bar.