Attorney “Legally” Defined

The following definitions for “attorney” are taken from Ballantine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (6th edition), Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition), and Webster’s Dictionary (1828):





An attorney at law or an attorney in fact.

The word, unless clearly indicated otherwise, is construed as meaning attorney at law [Re Morse, 98 Vt 85, 126 A 550, 36 ALR 527, 530].



One of a class of persons who are by license constituted officers of courts of justice, and who are empowered to appear and prosecute and defend, and on whom peculiar duties, responsibilities, and liabilities are devolved in consequence [7 Am J2d Attys § 1]. A quasi-judicial officer [7 Am J2d Attys § 3].

Of course, the work of an attorney is not confined to appearances in court for prosecutions and defenses. A person acting professionally in legal formalities, negotiations, or proceedings, by the warranty or authority of his clients is an attorney at law within the usual meaning of the term. The distinction between attorneys or solicitors and counsel or barristers is practically abolished in nearly all the states [7 Am J2d Attys § 1]. While some men of the profession devote their time and talents to the trial of cases and others appear in court only rarely, the law imposes the same requirements for admission and the same standards of ethics for both classes.

See barrister; of counsel; solicitor.



An agent or representative authorized by a power of attorney to act for his principle in certain matters [3 Am J2d Agency § 23]. An agent, sometimes referred to as a private attorney who is authorized by his principal, either for some particular purpose, or to do a particular act, not of a legal character.

Such an agent is often designated by the word “attorney” after his name [Hall v. Sawyer, 47 Barb (NY) 116, 119].




  1. One who acts for another by virtue of an appointment by the latter. Attorneys are of various kinds.
  2. An attorney in fact is a person to whom the authority of another, who is called the constituent, is by him lawfully delegated. This term is employed to designate persons who act under a special agency, or a special letter of attorney, so that they are appointed in factum, for the deed, or special act to be performed; but in a more extended sense it includes all other agents employed in any business, or to do any act or acts in pais for another [Bac. Ab. Attorney; Story, Ag. 25].
  3. All persons who are capable of acting for themselves, and even those who are disqualified from acting in their own capacity, if they have sufficient understanding, as infants of a proper age and femes coverts, may act as attorneys of others [Co. Litt. 52, a; 1 Esp. Cas. 142; 2 Esp. Cas. 511 2 Stark. Cas. N. P. 204].
  4. The form of this appointment is by letter of attorney. (q. v.)
  5. The object of his appointment is the transaction of some business of the constituent by the attorney.
  6. The attorney is bound to act with due diligence after having accepted the employment, and in the end, to render an account to his principle of the acts which he has performed for him [Vide Agency; Agent; Authority; and Principal].
  7. An attorney at law is an officer in a court of justice, who is employed by a party in a cause to mange the same for him. Appearance by an attorney has been allowed in England, from the time of the earliest records of the courts of that country. They are mentioned in Glanville, Bracton, Fleta, and Britton; and a case turning upon the party’s right to appear by attorney, is reported [B. 17 Edw. III, p. 8, case 23]. In France such appearances were first allowed by letters patent of Philip le Bel, A.D. 1290 [1 Flournel, Hist. des Avocats, 42; 43, 92, 93 2 Loisel Coutumes, 14, 15]. It results from the nature of their functions, and of their duties, as well to the court as to the client, that no one can, even by consent, be the attorney of both the litigating parties, in the same controversy [Farresly, 47].
  8. In some courts, as in the Supreme Court of the United States, advocates are divided into counselors at law, (q. v.) and attorneys. The business of attorneys is to carry on the practical and formal parts of the suit [1 Kent, Com. 307; see as to their powers, 2 Supp. to Ves. Jr. 241, 254; 3 Chit. Bl. 12, 338; Bac. Ab. h.t.; 3 Penna. R. 74; 3 Wils. 374; 16 S & R. 368; 14 S & R 307; 7 Cranch, 452; 1 Penna R. 264]. In general, the agreement of an attorney at law, within the scope of his employment, binds his client [1 Salk. 86] as to amend the record, [1 Binn. 75] to refer a cause [1 Dall. Rep. 164; 6 Binn. 101; 7 Cranch, 436; 3 Taunt. 486] not to sue out of a writ of error [1 H. Bl. 21, 23 2 Saund. 71, a, b; 1 Term Rep. 388] to strike off a non pros [1 Bin. 469 – 470], to waive a judgment by default [1 Arcb. Pr. 26] and this is but just and reasonable [2 Bin. 161]. But the act must be within the scope of their authority. They cannot, for example, without special authority, purchase lands fro the client at sheriff’s sale [2 S. & R. 21 11 Johns. 464].
  9. The name of attorney is given to those officers who practice in courts of common law; solicitors, in courts of equity and proctors, in courts of admiralty, and in the English ecclesiastical courts.
  10. The principal duties of an attorney are to be true to the court and to his client; to manage the business of his client with care, skill, and integrity [4 Burr. 2061 1 B. & A. 202; 2 Wils. 325; 1 Bing. R. 347; 3]; to keep his client informed as to the state of his business; to keep his secrets confided to him as such. See client confidential communication.
  11. For a violation of his duties, an action will in general lie; 2 Greenl. Ev. 145, 146; and, in some cases, he may be punished by an attachment. His rights are, to be justly compensated for his services [Vide 1 Keen’s R. 668; Client; Counsellor at law].
  12. Attorney-general of the United States, is an officer appointed by the president. He should be learned in the law, and be sworn or affirmed to a faithful execution of his office.
  13. His duties are to prosecute and conduct all suits in the Supreme Court, in which the United States shall be concerned; and give his advice upon questions of law, when required by the president, or when requested by the heads of any of the departments, touching matters that may concern their departments [Act of 24th Sept. 1789].
  14. His salary is three thousand five hundred dollars per annum, and he is allowed one clerk, whose compensation shall not exceed one thousand dollars per annum [Act 20th Feb. 1819, 3 Story’s Laws, 1720, and Act 20th April, 1818, s. 6, 3 Story’s Laws, 1693]. By the act of May 9, 1830 [4 Sharsw. cont. of Story, L. U. S. 2208, 10], his salary is increased five hundred dollars per annum.





In the most general sense this term denotes an agent or substitute, or one who is appointed and authorized to act in the place of stead of another [In re Ricker, 66 N. H. 207, 29 Atl. 559, 24 L. R. A. 740; Eichelberger v. Sifford, 27 Md. 320].

It is “an ancient English word, and signifieth one that is set in the turne, stead, or place of another; and of these some be private…and some be publike, as attorneys at law.” [Co. Litt. 51b, 128a; Britt. 285b].

One who is appointed by another to do something in his absence, and who has authority to act in the place and turn of him by whom he is delegated.

When used with reference to the proceedings of courts, or the transaction of business in the courts, the term always means “attorney at law,” q. v. [And see People v. May, 3 Mich. 605; Kelly v. Heb, 147 Pa. 563, 23 Atl. 889; Clark v. Mirse, 16 La. 576].

  • Attorney ad hoc: see AD HOC.
  • Attorney at large: in old practice, an attorney who practiced in all the courts [Cowell].
  • Attorney in fact: a private attorney authorized by another to act in his place and stead, either for some particular purpose, as to do a particular act, or for the transaction of business in general, not of a legal character. This authority is conferred by an instrument in writing, called a “letter of attorney,” or more commonly a “power of attorney.” [Treat v. Tolman, 113 Fed. 893, 51 C. C. A. 522; Hall v. Sawyer, 47 Barb. (N. Y.) 119; White v. Furgeson, 29 Ind. App. 144, 64 N. E. 49].
  • Attorney of record: the one whose name is entered on the record of an action or suit as the attorney of a designated party thereto [Delaney v. Husband, 64 N. J. Law, 275, 45 Atl. 265].
  • Attorney of the wards and liveries: in English law, this was the third officer of the duchy court [Bac. Abr. “Attorney.”]
  • Public attorney: this name is sometimes given to an attorney at law, as distinguished from a private attorney, or attorney in fact.
  • Attorney’s certificate: in English law, a certificate that the attorney named has paid the annual tax or duty. This is required to be taken out every year for all practicing attorneys under a penalty of fifty pounds.
  • Attorney’s lien: see LIEN.
  • Letter of attorney: a power of attorney; a written instrument b y which one person constitutes another his true and lawful attorney, in order that the latter may do for the former, and in his place and stead, some lawful act [People v. Smith, 112, Mich. 192, 70 N. W. 466, 67 Am. St. Rep. 32; Civ. Code La. 1900, art. 2985].



An advocate, counsel, official agent employed in preparing, managing, and trying cases in the courts. An officer in a court of justice, who is employed by a party in a cause to manage the same for him.

In English law, an attorney at law was a public officer belonging to the superior courts of common law at Westminster, who conducted legal proceedings on behalf of others, called his clients, by whom he was retained; he answered to the solicitor in the courts of chancery, and the proctor of the admiralty, ecclesiastical, probate, and divorce courts. An attorney was almost invariably also a solicitor. It is now provided by the judicature act, 1873, § 87 that solicitors, attorneys, or proctors, of, or by law empowered to practise in, any court the jurisdiction of which is by that act transferred to the high court of justice or the court of appeal, shall be called “solicitors of the supreme court” [Wharton].

  • The term is in use in America, and in most of the states includes “barrister,” “counselor,” and “solicitor,” in the sense in which those terms are used in England. In some states, as well as in the United States Supreme Court, “attorney” and “counsellor” are distinguishable, the former term being applied to the younger members of the bar, and to those who carry on the practice and formal parts of the suit, while “counselor” is the adviser, or special counsel retained to try the cause. In some jurisdictions one must have been an attorney for a given time before he can be admitted to practise as a counselor [Rap & L].



ATTORN’EY, n. [plu. attorneys].

One who is appointed or admitted in the place of another, to manage his matters in law. The word formerly signified any person who did business for another; but its sense is now chiefly or wholly restricted to persons who act as substitutes for the person’s concerned, in prosecuting and defending actions before courts of justice, or in transacting other business in which legal rights are involved. The word answers to the procurator (proctor) of the civilians.

Attorneys are not admitted to practice in courts until examined, approved, licensed, and sworn, by direction of some court after which they are proper officers of the court.

In Great Britain, and in some of the United States, attorneys are not permitted to be advocates or counsel in the higher courts; this privilege being confined to counselors and sergeants. In other states, there is no distinction of rank, and attorneys practice in all the courts. And in a general sense, the word “attorney” comprehends counselors, barristers, and serjeants.

In Virginia, the duties of attorney, counselor, conveyancer, and advocate, are all performed by the same individual.

An attorney may have general powers to transact business for another; or his powers may be special, or limited to a particular act or acts.

Attorney General is an officer appointed to manage business for the king, the state or public; and his duty, in particular, is to prosecute persons guilty of crimes.

A letter or warrant of attorney is a written authority from one person empowering another to transact business for him.



To perform by proxy; to employ as a proxy [Not in use].

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