Lawyers are Doctors, Too

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Like medical school students who earn an M.D. and graduate school students in any number of academic disciplines who earn a Ph.D., most law school students also receive a doctoral degree–juris doctor, to be precise.

But lawyers are much less likely to use the doctor label than physicians or Ph.D. recipients. It might be nice to think that it’s a matter of collective professional modesty, but the more likely reason is that professional conduct rules never have been clear on whether it’s permissible for a lawyer to be known as doctor. (See “Tussle Over Titles,” January 2006 ABA Journal, page 28.)

Actually, the appellation of juris doctor is of fairly recent vintage. In 1969, as more law schools were phasing out bachelor of law (LL.B.) degrees in favor of the increasingly popular J.D., the ABA’s Committee on Professional Ethics (which later became the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility) issued an opinion advising lawyers not to refer to themselves as doctors. In ABA Formal Opinion 321, the com­mittee said that its longstanding position was derived from prohibitions against “self-laudation” set forth in the ABA Canons of Ethics.

Less than a year later, however, the ethics committee reversed course in light of the newly adopted ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility. Disciplinary Rule 2-102 permitted a J.D. or LL.M. (master of law) recipient to use doctor with his or her name, the committee concluded in ABA Informal Opinion 1152 (1970).

Several states concurred with the ABA’s new position, while others held to the prior rule. A Maine ethics opinion issued in 1979, for instance, advised lawyers that “the title doctor is almost exclusively confined to certain health professionals and, to some extent, academics with a Ph.D. degree and clergymen,” so a layperson who heard a lawyer referred to as doctor would assume that the lawyer was qualified in one of those professions.

States Give Second Opinions

The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which superseded the Model Code in 1983, don’t directly address a lawyer’s use of doctor, nor do most legal ethics codes at the state level. As a result, guidance on the issue continues to come primarily from state ethics opinions.

These opinions generally turn on the question of whether using doctor or any other title constitutes a false or mis leading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. Such communications are prohibited under ABA Model Rule 7.1.

In 1986, a North Carolina ethics opinion advised that referring to an attorney holding a juris doctor degree as doctor “without explanation could be misleading and is therefore inappropriate.”

But in 2004, the ethics committee of the State Bar of Texas abandoned its long-standing position that lawyers may not refer to themselves as doctor in either social or professional settings. In Opinion 550, the committee concluded that the title is not inherently false or misleading. The committee found no reason to prohibit lawyers from indicating their advanced level of education in the same way as such professionals as educators and social scientists.

The committee also concluded that prohibiting the use of the term to avoid “self-laudation” no longer is necessary “in light of state-bar-approved legal special­ization and lawyer advertising.”

The committee advised, however, that it may be misleading for a lawyer to use doctor in certain contexts, such as advertising legal services relating to medical malpractice, because of the possibility of misleading prospective clients about a lawyer’s qualifications and the results he or she might achieve. In those instances, the committee said, the advertising should include a prominent disclaimer and statement about the lawyer’s qualifications.

That’s a pretty good prescription to follow, at least in states where lawyers are not prohibited outright from calling themselves doctor.

Kathleen Maher, a lawyer, is with the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility.

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