While many people use the terms "attorney" and "lawyer" interchangeably, they actually mean different things. Each carries varying rights and responsibilities, as well.
Of course, the concepts of "lawyer" and "attorney" have a lot in common. They both describe individuals who have received legal training and have earned a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. However, every attorney is a lawyer, but not all lawyers are attorneys.
Attorneys must pass the bar exam, a two- or three-day, state-specific test that measures a lawyer's knowledge and competence to practice law.
Quite simply, a lawyer is someone who has completed a course of legal training at a law school, which usually involves three years of full-time study beyond an undergraduate degree.
If a law school graduate doesn't take the bar exam or takes it but doesn't pass, this doesn't necessarily mean they can never use the knowledge they gained in law school in an employment context. On the contrary, many people with law degrees work outside the law in various sectors, including government and business.
But a lawyer without membership in a state bar cannot represent clients in court or other legal proceedings. If a lawyer does this, they can be charged with the unlawful practice of law despite having a law degree.
An attorney has completed the educational requirements to take a state bar exam and has passed the exam and taken an oath as a member of a state bar.
Attorneys have a license and the right to practice law. They may be members of more than one state bar—particularly if they practice near a border between two states. Attorney specialties vary and may require membership in a separate bar, such as the patent bar for patent attorneys.
As a state bar member, an attorney must also comply with the state's rules of professional conduct. These ethics rules provide guidelines for how an attorney must conduct their practice, such as attorney advertising, keeping client and personal funds separate, attorney-client privilege, and maintaining reasonable communication with the client regarding the progress of a case.
Violations of these rules can lead to charges against the attorney by a state ethics board, which may take various disciplinary actions against the attorney, including reprimand, suspension, or disbarment.
Do the differences in the use of these terms actually matter? Practically speaking, not really—though it depends on whom you ask.
Most lawyers and attorneys don't even distinguish between the two terms themselves and use them interchangeably, so it's unlikely that you will offend a legal professional's sensibilities if you mix them up.