Laywers, and those acting as legal representatives who are not lawyers, are all addressed with various legal distinctions and titles. The distinctions and titles supposedly help people understand who and what they are hiring for various legal purposes, although, most of the time, it tends to get a little more confusing. If you are searching for an attorney or some legal assistance, you may come across all of the legal distinctions and titles, most likely without an explanation. To make things less confusing for you, the definitions of the following legal titles and distinctions are provided.
Attorneys at Law
This is probably the most confusing of phrases, since it really just means an attorney or lawyer that practices common law and/or serves to practice both defense and plaintiff positions in cases. They are mostly likely the type of lawyer you would hire for just about anything. You could choose to hire an attorney-at-law, a general practice lawyer, or a special practice lawyer, but most people just say that they have hired a lawyer.
Esquire or Esq.
When a lawyer wants to sound fancy, he or she places "Esq. or Esquire" on the end of his/her name. Usually, male lawyers are more likely to do it than females, but it has been seen both ways. It does not signify anything in particular; just that somebody is a lawyer.
In legal matters, a "J.D." is more than just a nickname. It signifies that the person you are speaking to has a "Juris Doctor" degree. He or she has completed law school, and has a doctorate in law. Interestingly enough, it does not necessarily mean that the person has a license to practice law, just that he/she has completed the necessary coursework to become a lawyer. He/she can give legal advice, but cannot defend your case without a license. Anyone touting a "J.D." on his/her business card should be someone you question and request to see his/her license prior to hiring him/her.
Power of Attorney
A "power of attorney" is not necessarily an attorney. In fact, and in most cases, a power of attorney is someone close to the person needing power of attorney. The power of attorney means that certain legal powers and decision-making skills have been given to someone to assist the person in need of protection or legal matters.
A power of attorney does not have full legal authority, nor does he/she practice law. One such example is that you give power of attorney over your person to an adult child. The adult child would step in and make health decisions for you in the event that you become too sick to make them yourself.
An Executor of Wills
If things were not confusing enough, you have a probate lawyer, a wills and trusts lawyer, and an executor of wills prior to death. While the first two are real lawyers practicing real branches of law, the executor is not. The executor is someone you appoint to manage any and all affairs surrounding your will and your estate after you have passed on. This person also has limited legal powers. He/she could be a lawyer, but quite often is not. There are also lawyers you can hire to act as executors of your will in the event that you have outlived all your heirs, or you have no heirs to begin with.
Guardian ad Litem
A guardian ad litem is almost always a court-appointed legal professional. Their purpose is to represent the best interests of children in divorce cases, but they may also represent adults who cannot speak for themselves, or adults who have severe mental retardation. The guardian ad litem also helps decide how to best serve those he/she is supposed to represent, and presents those recommendations to the court.