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What’s in a name – attorney, solicitor, barrister, lawyer…?

I’m always curious to find out how Dutch lawyers describe themselves in English. I’ve seen quite a few variations over the years that I have been teaching legal English to Dutch legal professionals. The most common variant that appears on the English language version of your business card seems to be ‘attorney’ or ‘attorney-at-law.’ But is this really the correct title?

Translating job titles is always a difficult task, for example how do you translate the commonly used Dutch ‘medewerker’? ‘Common worker’?! I don’t think so… ‘Colleague’ also does not work well in job titles. Perhaps ‘assistant’?

So, how should we translate ‘advocaat’? Well, it most resembles the English word ‘advocate’, but if you read my previous article on ‘false friends’ then you will think twice before you fall into this trap. Yes, a Dutch ‘advocaat’ does act as an advocate, but the word has a wider meaning than that – an advocate is someone who speaks out on behalf of another person, so not per se a legal professional. It could also be a politician, a community leader, a teacher or a parent who is acting on someone else’s behalf.

Solicitors and barristers

If we compare Dutch legal professionals to English legal professionals, we need to ask if we can borrow any job titles from the English system. The English system has ‘solicitors’ and ‘barristers’. OK, so you are thinking that here is an easy solution – a solicitor is a ‘notaris’ and a barrister is an ‘advocaat’. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. These English legal professionals work in a different way from their Dutch colleagues. If a client has any type of legal issue, then they need to go to a solicitor – it doesn’t matter if they want to buy a house, make a will, enter into an employment contract, or take someone to court. So, where does the barrister come in? Barristers are instructed by solicitors to act on behalf of the client in court or to give specialist advice on points of law or the merits of the case. But that doesn’t mean that solicitors never appear in court. The solicitor will often appear in the lower courts, acting on behalf of the client.

Borrow a job title

So, if we can’t borrow a job title from the English legal system, can we borrow one from the American system? Well, that appears to be what many Dutch lawyers have done by using the expression ‘attorney-at-law’. Is that the solution? Well, obviously, that’s not for me to decide, but I do have a few words of warning. Firstly, be careful about shortening this job title to simply ‘attorney’ because of course, this also has a wider meaning. Anybody can be appointed as an attorney by means of a Power of Attorney. This is when an individual needs someone to act on their behalf, usually in relation to financial matters, due to that individual’s incapacity – think of Great Aunt Greta who is going slightly crazy and wants to spend all her money on cats and gambling…

The second issue is that by definition, an American ‘attorney-at-law’ is an individual who has been admitted to the American Bar. I have yet to meet a Dutch lawyer who has been admitted to the American Bar.

My recommendation?

Well, the sharp eyed among you will have noticed that I tend to use the expression ‘lawyer’ meaning anyone who practices the law. Yes, it is a general expression, but it is accurate. If you want to be more specific, perhaps ‘Lawyer (advocaat)’ is what should be printed on the business card. But this is just the humble opinion of a language trainer and former solicitor. What do you think….

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Liz van der L.
Liz is geboren in het Verenigd Koninkrijk en startte haar carrière als advocaat gespecialiseerd in familierecht. In 2004 verhuisde ze naar Nederland, waar ze sinds 2005 werkt als taaltrainer en vertaler. Haar favoriete doelgroep? The lawyers, of course!

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