What Does “Attorney” Mean?

attorney-at-law

Someone sent me this question:

Why do we say “attorney at law”? Can you be an attorney at anything else?

Here is my reply:

The English word “attorney” comes from an Old French word that means, “to transfer.” In its most general sense, the term means an agent, substitute, or representative.

For example, under a written power of attorney, the person signing the document, referred to as the principal, transfers his or her right to act to another person. The person receiving this transfer is called the “attorney-in-fact.” So yes, you can be an attorney at something other than law. An attorney-in-fact can conduct banking transactions, commercial transactions, or engage in other financial matters on behalf of the principal that do not necessarily require the attorney to be trained in the law.

Through the years, however, the most common situation in which one person appoints another to represent him or her is in legal matters–especially in court. Hence, the general term attorney is often thought to be synonymous with attorney-at-law. However, the literal meaning is simply one who acts on behalf of another, an agent, a substitute, or a representative.

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