To Esq. or Not to Esq.?

To Esq. or Not to Esq.?

“Why is there ‘Esq.’ after your name?” asked my grandfather, who had moved to the United States from England, “You’re not a gentleman!” I had proudly handed him one of my first post-Bar-admission business cards, and that was not the reaction I expected. I informed him that, in the U.S., “Esquire” denotes lawyer, irrespective of gender. But I wondered how that designation came to pass. I must admit, it has taken me many years to get around to doing a bit of research.

European origins

The use of “esquire” to indicate that a person is a lawyer is unique to the United States and is a departure from the title’s traditional use. Its origins date back to the Latin word "scutum," which means “shield.” That term eventually evolved into the Middle French word "esquier" for a shield bearer. In England during the Middle Ages the title was reserved for males and was a term of respect for those of high social rank and dignitaries such as sheriffs, sergeants, justices of the peace and “barristers at law.” In modern Britain, “esquire” is used as a very formal address for a man or a woman in lieu of “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or some other honorific. It does not carry the same professional meaning it does in the States.

U.S. usage

“Esquire” came to refer exclusively to lawyers in this country over time, but its transition is unclear. Today, it’s commonly used as a friendly honorific that practicing attorneys afford each other on correspondence, legal filings, and other documents as a courtesy. “Esq.” is written after the lawyer’s name and typically is included instead of—but not in addition to—“J.D.” Since it is an honorific like “Mr.” or “Ms.,” rules of etiquette dictate that the “esquire” title is used alone: Either “Ms. Jane Doe” or “Jane Doe, Esq.,” but not “Ms. Jane Doe, Esq.”

The title generally isn’t used by an attorney when referring to herself. Even lawyers, a sometimes pretentious bunch, would consider it old fashioned, pompous, and—possibly—somewhat humorous if you introduced yourself as “Jane Doe, Esquire.” If, in person, online, or over the phone, you think it’s necessary to communicate that you are a lawyer, just say, “I’m Jane Doe, Attorney.” Many years ago, when I was a law student, a fellow first year made the mistake of referring to himself as “Esquire” and that nickname stuck for the duration. Even now, classmates refer to him by that moniker. Don’t make that mistake!

In an online discussion, some mostly young and/or female lawyers mentioned that they occasionally see the usefulness of the title “esquire” to flex their status, usually with non-lawyers. Women, especially, stated that they might use the suffix “Esq.” on their professional email signature blocks simply because, otherwise, they often were assumed to be an assistant or paralegal. Some even went so far as using the title “esquire” in non-work settings, such as with vendors and home improvement contractors, when some extra gravitas seemed advantageous. They did not include “Esq.” in their signature blocks on documents that were printed on professional letterhead if their names were listed there with the other attorneys, however, as their lawyer status already was evident. Similarly, on court documents, the requirement that lawyers also include their state bar numbers makes the “esquire” suffix redundant.

Ethical considerations

Immediately upon graduating from law school, you can add the initials “J.D.” after your name, which stands for Juris Doctor, or the degree earned. (Even though a legal degree is a doctorate, you don’t usually address a law degree holder as "doctor.") Of course, merely graduating from law school does not give you the right to practice law nor, perhaps, even use the term “esquire.” In many jurisdictions, only after a person goes through the rigorous process of taking and passing that state’s Bar exam, professional ethics exam, and moral fitness background check, and is licensed to practice law, can she be referred to by the “esquire” title. Some states view the mere use of the title as holding yourself out as a lawyer and, if not technically eligible to actively practice law, may even constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Check with the state bar in the jurisdiction where you work to make sure there aren’t any ethical restrictions about the use of “esquire.”

The issue gets thornier for lawyers who are on inactive status, or licensed only in another state, or who are engaged in a business or profession other than the practice of law. In some jurisdictions, they might get themselves into hot water by wrongfully using the “esquire” title. Again, the concern is that the use of designations like “J.D.,” “ Esq.,” “lawyer” or “attorney at law” will create a false perception that the person is providing legal services or acting in her capacity as a lawyer even if actively engaged in another job—which may inadvertently create the impression of a lawyer-client relationship.

Rule 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that a lawyer “shall not make a false or misleading communication about the law or the lawyer’s services.” It’s considered misleading, for instance, for a lawyer on inactive status to identify herself as “licensed in,” “admitted to” or a “member of” a state’s bar, since those terms imply a current ability to practice law. There is less agreement, however, whether a lawyer who is unlicensed or inactive in a particular jurisdiction may use designations such as “Esq.,” “lawyer” or “attorney at law.”

While we’re at it, what’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

The terms “lawyer” and “attorney” generally are used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. The English word “attorney” has French origins, meaning “a person acting for another as an agent or deputy.” Technically, an attorney practices law in court whereas a lawyer may or may not. Although the terms often operate as synonyms, an attorney is a lawyer, but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney. Just as with the title “esquire,” some jurisdictions don’t permit anyone to call themself “attorney” or “lawyer” without being an active member in good standing before its court or of its bar association.

These days, I can accurately refer to myself as a “former practicing attorney” and I’ve long left the “esquire” behind.

Valerie Fontaine

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