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.)
Some dude alerted me to this May 2004 opinion of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Supreme Court of Texas, which considers the question,
May a lawyer use, in connection with his or her name, the titles “Doctor,” “Dr.,” “Doctor of Jurisprudence,” or “J.D.” in social and professional communications?
The Committee says that previously, in 1968, the Committed “issued an opinion concluding that a lawyer in most circumstances could not ethically use titles such as “Doctor,” “Dr.,” or “J.D.” “… orally or in writing, professional or otherwise ….” because such use was self-laudation prohibited by Texas Canon 24 ….” In other words, you couldn’t say “Dr. Kinsella” because it was too crass.
But now that the bar approves legal specialization and lawyer advertising, “the stated basis for Opinion 344 no longer exists.” So, calling yourself “Dr.” might still be crass and it might still “tend to lower the tone of the profession,” but this is simply no longer prohibited.
The Committee goes on to ask whether the use of Dr. as a title for a lawyer is contrary to rules “that prohibit any form of communication that is false or misleading.” The Committee concludes that
the use of the title “Dr.,” “Doctor,” “J.D.” or “Doctor of Jurisprudence” is not, in itself, prohibited as constituting a false or misleading communication. The Committee recognizes that other professions, such as educators, economists and social scientists, traditionally use title “Dr.” in their professional names to denote a level of advanced education and not to imply formal medical training. There is no reason in these circumstances to prohibit lawyers with a Juris Doctor or Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from indicating the advanced level of their education.
They do say that in some contexts–e.g., where a lawyer is advertising “for legal services in connection with medical malpractice”, then the use of the title “Dr.” might be misleading if it implies that the lawyer is a medical doctor. But in general, since the lawyer does have a Juris Doctor, and since most people would not think “Dr. Smith” implies an M.D. (since many non-M.D.’s, such as Ph.D.’s, are referred to as “Doctor”), it is not misleading for a lawyer to use the title Doctor.
Now, I do not disagree with this. I still believe it is cheesy, unseemly, self-embarrassing, pompous, and pathetic–it is just that these things are not prohibited by lawyers’ ethical rules, nor should they be. I suppose I agree that it is not misleading; when I said previously I think it’s misleading, I meant that I believe it implies the lawyer has a post-JD degree–a “real” legal doctorate. The Committee apparently did not consider this possible issue, but whether “Dr.” is misleading in implying medical specialty.
Update: From Bryan Garner’s twitter:
@UHLawSchool: I learned that JD is an abbreviation for Juris Doctor. I see Juris Doctorate everywhere. Is this variant correct?” No.
And this post:
JD is the degreeby Zearfoss, Sarah on 7/18/2011 10:30 AM
One of life’s great indulgences is the cognoscente’s feeling of smug superiority when others get some inside-baseball bit of information wrong. It’s a heady amalgam of emotions—lamenting how the world is going to hell while simultaneously assuring yourself that it is, at any rate, not YOUR fault. And I have noted in my own case that the impulse is exacerbated when I learned the key bit of information relatively late in life. I suppose the increased degree of smugness is borne of overcompensation. There are things that I can actually remember learning as an adult, and yet they still elicit a quick, happy disdain in my heart when someone else gets them wrong.
I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Once, while out of town for a law school conference, I had dinner with a faculty member—let’s call him Professor Black—who might reasonably be described as combative; he also invited someone from another law school. At dinner, Professor Black told a little story using the term “schadenfreude”; when our dinner companion chuckled, Professor Black challenged him, gleefully: “Do you even know what schadenfreude means?” No, the dinner companion was compelled to confess; he did not. It is hard to describe the level of exultation this confession elicited in Professor Black—the word “cackling” comes to mind. Meanwhile, I contemplated stabbing myself in the eyes with my dinner fork. My bystander-mortification didn’t stop me from retailing this story as soon as I returned to Michigan, mind you. And that’s how I learned, from the first person I told (we’ll call him, let’s see, Professor Schmiller), that he had introduced Professor Black to the word schadenfreude a mere week or so before. I’m happy to report that Professor Schmiller’s resulting glee and exultation in learning of his colleague’s behavior surpassed even Professor Black’s at the time of the incident.
Hilarious though it may be, this behavior is not attractive. Clearly, we should all struggle to better ourselves and overcome such impulses. But I haven’t reached that plane of development. I’m a flawed individual, and this flaw happens to be right up my alley. While I aspire to self-improvement, it just hasn’t happened yet. (Let’s be honest; it may never come. I don’t try as hard as I ought.)
So let me throw up my hands and share with you a mistake that elicits an unbecoming smirk in me. The degree people get when they graduate from law school is a JD. What does it stand for? Juris doctor. It does NOT stand for juris doctorate. “Juris doctorate” is not an actual thing.
The fact that many people get this wrong has been striking me forcibly of late, as I am involved in three separate searches for administrative positions to be filled at the Law School. The number of job applicants who erroneously identify themselves as possessing “juris doctorates” has been astonishing—although somewhat less astonishing than the fact that if you Google the term “juris doctorate,” you will find webpages of multiple law schools touting that degree.
But now I have performed a small public service, perhaps decreasing the number of people who might have made that mistake, which in turn might lead to fewer instances of bad behavior on my part. And who knows? Maybe someday I will actually improve my fundamentals.
Assistant Dean for Admissions
and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies