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The curious case of why lawyers are not called 'doctor'

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David M. Fryson.

I have been a practicing lawyer since 1988, and I’m acutely aware of the interesting and 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, who was 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, one of participating attorneys snidely asked me whether I had another terminal degree besides the doctorate in jurisprudence. So began my ongoing exploration of the term “Dr.” And through that exploration, I have come to challenge the assumptions of not using the title for those whose terminal degree is the JD.

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

While on a planning committee to be the keynote speaker for a Martin Luther King commemoration a few years ago, my title of “pastor” was used along with the suffix “Esq.” A sitting judge on the committee took umbrage with this combination and made it known. Since the JD is a doctorate, the appropriate title for clergy who have a JD should be “the Rev. Dr.”

In America, among those with earned doctorates, only juris doctors are not afforded the courtesy of the title “Dr.” Understanding the history of this degree 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.

The mid-20th century saw a change in law school education with the law degree primarily becoming 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 blog post from the Marquette University Law School. Nevertheless, the American tradition that JD degree holders should not use the prefix “Dr.” persisted.

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

The American legal profession’s reluctance for law degree holders to advertise or utilize their degree in advertising has added to the challenge and current confusion as to the appropriateness of the term for JD holders.

In Formal Opinion 183, decided May 10, 1938, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility held that “it would be improper for a lawyer to place upon” a professional letterhead “any degree conferred” because “it would serve no purpose other than to advertise the qualification of the lawyer,” according to the San Diego County Bar Association.

Thirty-one years later, in Formal Opinion 321, issued March 1, 1969, the ABA committee recognized that Formal Opinion 183 “must be updated,” and that the use of the title “Dr.” is “proper in reputable law lists, on academic occasions and in academic circles when in accordance with the customs of the school and when dealing with lawyers and others abroad in countries in which lawyers are referred to as ‘doctor,’” according to the San Diego County Bar Association.

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, and this hesitancy should be resolved because the arguments against a JD using the prefix “Dr.” have increasingly become irrelevant.

Arguments against?

Some have opined that law school does not have a final research project or dissertation like the PhD. But those who have attained 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.

Additionally, other terminal degree holders, such as the EdD (a doctor of education), do not have the research element and are often graduates of programs that are less intellectually rigorous than law school,but nevertheless are afforded the honorific title.

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.” For instance, 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.” during the interview.

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

Interestingly, 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 “Dr.” apparently became a point of conversation, and I noticed that he stopped using the title.

In conclusion

Currently, practitioners and academics often use the traditional designations of “counselor” and “professor,” and these titles continue to be appropriate. Nevertheless, 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 the use of the term “Dr.” for holders of the JD is outdated and unnecessary, and it should be finally and formally 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.

See also: “What do we call a lawyer? A look at attorney titles”

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. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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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