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Decoding the Legal Doctorate: The curious case of why lawyers are not called 'doctor'

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David M. Fryson

Editor’s note: This column appeared on on May 8 and quickly became one of our most-read stories of 2023. To see some of our readers’ responses, see Letters From Our Readers on page 7.

I have been a practicing lawyer since 1988, and I’m acutely aware of the curious dance that attorneys have with how to be addressed professionally, particularly in academic settings.

It never occurred to me, however, that lawyers would use the title “Dr.” until a few years after graduating from law school, when I accepted an adjunct position at a local college while also practicing law.

One of my students, also an administrative assistant for a local judge, referred to me as “doctor” one day in her judge’s outer chamber while scheduling a hearing. At the elevator after the meeting, a participating attorney snidely asked me whether I had another terminal degree besides the doctorate in jurisprudence. So began my ongoing exploration of the term “Dr.,” one through which I have come to challenge the assumption that one whose terminal degree is the JD should not use the title.

I am also an ordained minister, and clergy increasingly use the term “Dr.” This includes those who attended seminary as well as those who have received this title from the full spectrum of institutions or received honorary doctorates.

While on a planning committee to be the keynote speaker for a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration a few years ago, my title of “Rev.” was used along with the suffix “Esq.” A sitting judge on the committee took umbrage with this combination and made it known.

In America, among those with earned doctorates, only juris doctors are not afforded the courtesy of the title “Dr.” Understanding the degree’s history could be helpful in determining whether there should be a change in protocol.

History of the JD

A juris doctor or a doctorate in jurisprudence is a three-year professional degree historically known for its considerable intellectual rigor. Part of the challenge of perception with JDs using the title “Dr.” is that at one point, the American law degree was considered a bachelor of laws, or LLB.

Harvard University first awarded the LLB in 1820 as an undergraduate degree. The evolution of the JD as a graduate degree was deliberated throughout most of the 20th century. The awarding of the JD degree was first suggested by the Harvard Law School faculty in 1902, but the proposal did not meet with university approval. In 1903, the University of Chicago Law School, which was one of five law schools then demanding a college degree from its applicants, first conferred the JD on its graduates.

In the mid-20th century, the law degree primarily became a graduate degree that required a four-year bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for law school entry.

“Between 1964 and 1969, at the encouraging of the American Bar Association, most American law schools … upgraded their basic law degree from the traditional ‘LLB’ to ‘JD’ to reflect the by then almost-universal postgraduate status of the degree,” according to a 2012 post at the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog. Nevertheless, American JD degree-holders didn’t adopt the title of “Dr.”

Interestingly, the first time that the doctorate degree was ever bestowed in any profession was at the University of Bologna in Italy in the 12th century in civil law and then in canon law and other fields. Even now, European countries continue to award a doctorate degree in law and utilize that honorific title.

The American legal profession’s reluctance for law degree-holders to advertise or note their degree in advertising has added to the challenge and current confusion.

In Formal Opinion 183, decided May 10, 1938, the ABA Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances held that “it is improper for a lawyer to place upon” a professional letterhead “any degrees conferred” because “it can have no purpose other than to advertise the qualification of the lawyer.”

Nearly 31 years later, in Formal Opinion 321, issued March 1, 1969, the ABA Committee on Professional Ethics recognized that title “Dr.” may be used “(1) in reputable law lists; (2) on academic occasions and in academic circles and then only in accordance with the customs of the degree-granting school; or (3) when dealing with lawyers and others from countries in which lawyers are referred to as ‘doctor.’”

The ABA committee also stated: “Until the time comes when the JD degree is the universal degree for the initial study of law (as the MD degree is in medicine) we can see no reason to permit the professional use of this degree so as to distinguish its holder as compared with others who hold a different degree.”

Today, the JD is the universal degree for the initial study of law in the United States, and this hesitancy should be resolved.

Arguments against?

Some have opined that law school does not have a final research project or dissertation like the PhD. But those with a law school education will attest that research is the foundation of the three years of matriculation and is a part of virtually all the classes.

As a senior leader in a university setting, I observed how it can be a limiting factor for JDs to not have the option of using the title “Dr.”

I was once a semifinalist for a university presidency. During my interview, virtually all faculty on the search committee were either PhDs or EdDs and used the title “Dr.”

When someone referred to me as “doctor,” I corrected them, but I thought that this was a noticeable limitation in this academic setting. When recounting this to the president of my university, who is a dual JD/PhD holder, he counseled me to never correct someone who refers to me as “Dr.”

The successful applicant for this presidency was a JD who used the title “Dr.” during his interview process. After he ascended to the presidency, his usage of the title apparently became a point of conversation, and I noticed that he stopped using it.

In conclusion

The usage of the title “Dr.” for JD holders is appropriate, and its usage should be discussed and clarified. The unofficial prohibition and academic resentment toward JDs using the term is outdated and unnecessary, and it should be finally considered and adjusted. Since the ABA has removed the limitation of the use of the title, it is time to formally provide a structure for JD holders who use the term “Dr.” to be universally accepted.

David M. Fryson, the senior pastor of the New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City in West Virginia, is a retired lawyer and a retired founding vice president of West Virginia University's Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Fryson currently is a national diversity consultant.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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