A federal attorney is an attorney who is qualified to appear before the federal courts of the United States. The court system in the United States consists of both federal and state courts. Different cases are heard in federal court versus state court, and attorneys must be separately sworn in before they can present a case before a federal court.
In the United States, certain actions are left up to the states. States can make their own property law, for example, and can also pass their own regulations on numerous other issues as long as those regulations do not conflict with federal law. If a state makes a law, the court within that state is entitled to enforce the state law, and to resolve any issues that arise as a result of that law.
The federal government, on the other hand, is vested with the power to make laws only in certain areas. For example, the federal government can make laws regarding issues that concern interstate commerce. The federal government thus created tax law and securities law, among other rules.
If a case arises under federal law, it must be brought in federal court. For example, if a person believes his constitutional rights were violated, he cannot bring that case in a state court and have the state court decide whether the plaintiff is right or wrong. Since the U.S. Constitution is federal law, a victim of a constitutional violation must go to federal court to have his case decided.
Only a federal attorney can represent a person in federal court. Like all attorneys, a federal attorney must be a licensed attorney. This means all federal attorneys must attend law school, and must take the Bar Exam in their respective states. Since the bar exam is state specific, taking the bar only qualifies a person to be an attorney within the state that administered his bar exam.
The federal courts do not administer a bar exam, so a person must apply separately to become a federal attorney and to be licensed to appear before the federal court. When a person submits an application to the federal court system to become a federal attorney, he or she must demonstrate an understanding of federal law and the federal rules of civil procedure. The application must be approved before the attorney becomes qualified to serve as a lawyer within the federal court system.
The federal court system consists of the United State's Supreme Court, the U.S. District Courts, and the U.S. Courts of Appeal. Federal attorneys are qualified to represent clients in any of these courts. They can thus serve as either a plaintiff's or defendant's attorney within the federal court system once they are deemed qualified.