“Doctor” Lawyer?

by Norman S. Kinsella on April 5, 2002

Legal terminology, with its liberal use of Latin phrases and other specialized jargon, can be daunting and confusing. In law school I often wondered why the seemingly-redundant phrase “attorney-at-law” was used; what other kind of attorney was there?, I wondered. A peek at the dictionary, and a little reflection, reveals that “attorney” simply means “agent” for someone else; hence the expression “power of attorney”; both laymen and lawyers can have a “power of attorney”. The better term for those who practice law is probably lawyer or attorney-at-law, since anyong having power of attorney is technically an “attorney” (granted, however, that semantics follows usage, and the most common usage of “attorney” today is used to denote lawyers only).

More annoying than “attorney-at-law” is the practice of some attorneys of using the title “Doctor.” Although there is apparently some dispute over this, I view it as misleading, cheesy, unseemly, and self-embarrassing for a lawyer to refer to himself as “Doctor” such-and-such. In addition, the law degree is usually a Juris Doctor (J.D.), yet many lawyers insist on calling it a a “Juris Doctorate”, I suppose out of ignorance or to make it sound more impressive. (Note: a few law schools apparently do use “Juris Doctorate” on their diplomas—improperly, in my view.)

Way back when, lawyers got an LL.B. (the bachelor of laws—the “LL” meaning, I suppose, “laws”-plural in much the same way that §§ means “sections”). A master’s in law is an LL.M., and a true doctorate in law is an LL.D. (also sometimes given as a straight Ph.D, or as an SJD or JSD—for “doctor of juridical/juristic science”). Apparently, a few decades ago, the American legal bar decided to change the LL.B. to the J.D., in a vain attempt to garner the prestige of Ph.Ds or M.D.s. Under today’s rules, one must obtain a bachelor’s degree in anything, before entering law school. This does make the 3-year law degree technically a graduate degree, but since the undergrad degree need not relate in the slightest to law (my own undergraduate degree is in engineering!), it is not really a graduate degree in the sense of building on some foundation, and it is thus absurd to view the law degree as a true doctorate. Query: if a regular J.D. lawyer is a “Doctor,” what does he become after subsequently obtaining an LL.D.?—a Doctor-Doctor? Many non-American lawyers, incidentally, still obtain LL.B. degrees, though some seem to be following the American model to change from LL.B. to J.D. (without requiring an undergraduate degree though!).

This may all be academic (I am not sure if the pun is intended), as the prestige behind the Ph.D. degree and the “doctor” title continue to plummet, due to lowering of standards and the explostion of Ph.D.s granted in ridiculous specialties.

Incidentally, the B.C.L. and M.C.L. are the civil-law equivalents of the common-law LL.B. and LL.M., respectively. My alma mater, LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, now issues both a J.D. and a B.C.L. to all its law graduates, in recognition of the dual common law/civil law–”bi-jural”–education received.

P.S.: If anyone has a link to the real story behind the American change from LL.B. to J.D., please pass it on.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Gutzman November 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Here you go:


Of course, as my law-school mentor used to say, this is all about barriers to entry.


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