The terms lawyer and attorney are commonly used interchangeably; one refers to the other. In each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the practice of law is limited to attorneys/lawyers who have been formally registered and admitted to practice in that state or district. Being admitted to practice is generally a three-fold process: graduation from an accredited law school, obtaining a passing score on the multi-state and state bar examinations, and meeting all character and fitness criteria established by a state administrative board responsible for overseeing the practice of law in that state. The unlicensed practice of law, by either a layman or a trained lawyer who has failed to obtain licensure, carries serious consequences, including administrative, civil, and/or criminal sanctions.
Technically speaking, successful graduation from an accredited law school, along with passing scores on multi-state and state bar examinations, objectively determine professional competency of an individual to practice law. However, because incompetency or unprofessional conduct can result in serious harm or damage to a client, licensure is mandated to ensure the overall and continued competence of each practitioner.
As with other licensed professions, the practice of law is primarily self-policed by the state administrative body that admits each person to practice. The state maintains a continued interest in the competency of attorneys after admission to practice, and has power to suspend or rescind licenses to practice within the state. Most states also mandate periodic continued legal education (CLE) after law school, to ensure that lawyers stay current on changing law and procedural practice.