Attorney at law

He’s over there, taking a deposition from a groundhog.

Dear Word Detective: I have long wondered what the word “attorney” actually means. It seems to be used interchangeably with the word “lawyer,” but why do we specify “attorney at law”? Is there such a thing as “attorney at medicine” or “attorney at accounting” or “attorney at landscaping”? What is the precise meaning of the word? — Christopher Valdez.

“Attorney at Landscaping” would be awesome. Actually, I’d settle for an “Attorney at Lawn,” some hotshot in a bespoke suit to mow the three acres we laughingly call a lawn. Spilling gasoline on his wingtips, smearing 10W-30 on his Hermes tie. Pro bono, of course.

It’s true that “attorney” and “lawyer” are generally considered synonyms here in the US (although lawyers almost universally seem to prefer being called “attorneys”). But ’twas not always so.

“Attorney” is derived from the verb “attorn,” meaning generally “to turn over to another person, to delegate, to transfer,” with the object of the verb being anything from real property or a contractual obligation to intangible items such as one’s allegiance to a country or ruler, an important point in feudal law (“The Gascoignes … had sent into England, to shew causes why they should not atturne to the Duke.” 1611). “Attorn” comes from the Old French “atourner” (“a” in this case meaning “to,” plus “tourner,” to turn), and first appeared in English in the early 13th century.

“Attorney” appeared in English about a century later, with the initial meaning of simply “delegated agent or deputy.” This broad sense is now obsolete, and was replaced by “private attorney” or “attorney in fact,” meaning a person authorized (by a written “power of attorney”) to make decisions, invest money, sue people, bid on eBay and other important tasks on behalf of another person. The designated “attorney in fact” in such cases does not need to be a lawyer (someone trained and certified in knowledge of the law).

Counterposed to the “private attorney” was the “public attorney,” or “attorney at law,” a qualified and recognized (usually by a bar association or other legal authority) agent capable of representing clients in judicial proceedings. In the US, attorneys are just attorneys, whether drawing up deeds or defending miscreants in court, but in Britain “attorneys” were responsible for soliciting clients and developing cases that would actually be presented by “barristers” in court, which brings us to an interesting story. Apparently attorneys managed to amass such a bad reputation very early on that “attorney” became synonymous with “knave” (“Vile Attornies, now an useless race.” Alexander Pope, 1733) and “swindler” (“Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.'” J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). It eventually got so bad that, by an act of Parliament in 1873, “attorney” as a title was abolished in Britain and the term was merged with “solicitor,” previously reserved for those who prepared cases for the civil Chancery court.

So, as to your question, you could use a grant of Power of Attorney to designate another person to do just about anything for you, from making your medical decisions to deciding where to plant shrubs. If you paid that person enough, they’d probably even agree to wear a t-shirt reading “Attorney at Landscaping,” and the more I think about that, the more I like it.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page