Which do you prefer? According to Garner's "Dictionary of Modern American Usage," the two "are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession."
Once upon a time, a lawyer was defined as a person who practices law, while an attorney was a lawyer with a client. So that in 1965, the author of "The Careful Writer" noted that "a lawyer is an attorney only when he has a client." These days, such a distinction seems kooky. What lawyer doesn't have a client?
Garner also mentions that "lawyer" might have negative connotations. But what about the prairie lawyer, Abraham Lincoln? Can you imagine "Lincoln: The Prairie Attorney"?
On the other hand, you'll often hear defense firm types referring to themselves as "attorneys" or "litigators," lest they be confused with "trial lawyers." This is even true of defense attorneys who are trial lawyers. Go figure!
Sometimes, the conundrum can be solved by a consideration of rhyme. Just ask "Ernie the Attorney." (But isn't Ernie also a defense lawyer?)
Publication Note: Originally published 1/3/04. Republished today with broken links repaired.