Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Are Lawyers Considered Doctors??

Are There Any Doctors or Associates in the House is a very interesting September 2007 Your ABA E-News Web publication about lawyers can use the term doctor. As it turns out, the answer is not entirely clear. This article reports that State Bar Associations are actually split over whether lawyers can refer to themselves as "Dr." or "Doctor." As the article states: 

State bar opinions are split over whether a lawyer may refer to himself as “Dr.” or “Doctor”.  See Maher, Lawyers Are Doctors, Too 92 ABAJ 24 (2006).  The analysis usually turns on whether the issuing ethics committee determines that the use of the term would be false or misleading under their state version of Rule 7.1 Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 7.1 states:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

The Ethics Committee of the Texas Supreme Court issued opinion 550 (2004) on this topic in which it withdrew an earlier opinion that had prohibited lawyers from referring to themselves as “Doctor” or “Dr.” and concluded:

The Committee is of the opinion that under the Rules 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.

However, while use of the title alone is generally permitted, the context in which the title is used may cause use of the title to be a false or misleading communication. For example, a lawyer otherwise qualified to use the title of "Dr." who advertises as "Dr. John Doe" in a public advertisement for legal services in connection with medical malpractice or other areas involving specialized medical issues may be making a misleading statement as to the lawyer's qualifications and may be creating an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer can achieve. Unless accompanied by an appropriate, prominent statement of qualifications and disclaimers, such use of the title "Dr." could readily mislead prospective clients and thus violate the Rules. Compare Comment 2 to Rule 7.02.

I personally believe that it is inappropriate for J.D.'s to use the term doctor. This is because there are further advanced legal degrees, to wit L.L.M's and S.J.D. degrees. Perhaps, the holder of S.J.D. degree should be able to refer to himself as a doctor since that is the terminal degree in law. As with all legal rules, an attorney considering using the term doctor, should research state law with respect to this issue.
Mitchell H. Rubinstein

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"Perhaps, the holder of S.J.D. degree should be able to refer to himself as a doctor since that is the terminal degree in law."

I wholeheartedly agree:-)

Art Gemmell S.J.D.

Posted by: Art Gemmell | Sep 27, 2007 9:15:39 AM

Doctoral status implies advanced peer-reviewed work. A JD is not peer-reviewed and there is no original thought research involved. Advanced degrees should not ever imply doctoral status, or else anyone who has a Master's could consider themselves doctors of their field of study. The word "doctor" has changed over time and people do not expect someone who spent three years in law school to be skilled enough to have the title "doctor".

Posted by: Doctor | Dec 25, 2007 3:12:18 AM

You guys are full of yourself. Really! A "terminal" law degree, yah, right. What if we do not care to do research? Funny, I don't recall MDs, DDSs, DVMs, etc. doing "peer review" work. Is it self-laudation or is it an issue of self-deprication that lawyers don't use the term doctor. I don't call myself doctor but that is by choice as I do not believe that it is inappropriate to call myself doctor when my fully accredited law degree reads "juris DOCTOR" - it doesn't read bachelors or masters. Perhaps this SJD would like to research my diploma and see that it reads DOCTOR. By the way, in England the physicians obtain a Bachelors of Medicine (MB) but refer to themselves as doctor. Funny, now that is a lie as they are NOT doctors!

Posted by: Stephen Hicks | Mar 26, 2009 6:45:46 PM

I am a student and almost all proffesors have you refer to them as Dr. this or Dr. that. I don't find it in anyway confusing or upsetting. They just want recognition and respect. I truly believe that it would be ok for Lawyers to use this denotation especially in a University setting. So that their advanced degree is also recognized and respected.

Posted by: Minerva | Apr 16, 2009 9:03:59 AM

I really don't care what Mitchell thinks...many MDs and DDS follow up with specialized training and secure masters degrees. How can an MD or DDS (which are bachelors degrees in Great Britain) hold themselves out as "doctors" and a Juris Doctor cannot? Indeed, the very first doctorates were for lawyers nearly 1000 years ago. Additionally, neither the MD, DDS or JD require a dissertation such as that found with a PhD. Note that although these professional doctorates do not require a dissertation they do require as substantial comprehensive examination, such as the bar exam, unlike the PhD. Lawyers are no less doctors than any other doctorate holders. The real reason that lawyers don't often refer to themselves as lawyers... there are some older lawyers with LLBs who might feel left out even though they have had the chance to convert their degree status to the more appropriate Juris Doctor or Doctor of Jurisprudence. It is about time the legal profession professionalized itself and held itself out as doctors of law. I will probably not call myself "doctor" but I wouldn't likely do it with any degree...that being said, I probably should do it as a lawyer to elevate the stature and importance of the profession relative to others. I probably have that obligation.

Posted by: Stephen L. Hicks | Jun 23, 2009 2:58:30 AM

I think lawyers may use the prefix of Doctor or Dr. Just as medical doctors use the prefix Dr., lawyers are in a similar situation. Medical doctors practice medicine; Lawyers practice law. So the point of a "Dr." prefix in front of your name if you are a lawyer or a medical practitioner is a mute point. Either way, all you are really doing is practicing your chosen profession anyway.

Posted by: Law Profession | Aug 17, 2009 5:21:07 PM

The main argument here is that a law degree is not a terminal degree, but you fail to make the connection that a medical degree is also not a terminal degree. So what make it okay for those who possess a medical degree to refer to themselves as doctors and not those who earn a law degree?

Posted by: pre-Doctor | Jun 6, 2011 7:43:51 PM

"Doctoral status implies advanced peer-reviewed work."

Trial lawyers have their work peer-reviewed and criticized more than any other profession. Get over yourself.

Posted by: Caryn | Jun 29, 2011 7:56:45 PM

Not even an argument. Peer-reviewed work is nonsense. I have never met a single M.D., D.O., D.D.S., D.V.M., O.D., etc. who has even one peer-reviewed work. The argument about a "terminal degree" is nonsense too. There are research degrees, like an MD also working toward a PhD, in other fields and that does not limit the use of "doctor" for other professional doctorates.

Enough with the lies. The truth is that previously lawyers received LLBs (similar to physicians getting MBs and still do in the UK) and the concern was calling the new JDs "doctor" and leaving out the old. That is the only reason that the term "doctor" never caught on for lawyers in this country (it did in most of the rest of the world that was not a colony of Britain).

Lastly, in the early 1970s the ABA issued a Council Statement that a JD is "equivalent" to a PhD for educational employment purposes. They went on to state that a JD has the same education - about 90 semester credits post-bachelors to that of a PhD, who only does about 60 semester credits post-bachelors and the remaining 20-30 semester credits for a dissertation.

My J.S.D. friend you are rare and possibly a foreign law student or professor. You decided to do research in the field but that does not diminish my J.D. as a professional doctorate. Nor would an M.D. be restricted from calling himself/herself "doctor" for having only a professional doctorate and not a research doctorate (PhD).

Thank you,

Dr. Stephen... (a JD)

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 4, 2011 7:22:05 AM

You all are idiots and full of yourself! The REAL distinction between a doctor and a doctor is this.......if you are dying, who would you want to help you?

Posted by: Matt W | Dec 28, 2011 3:02:33 PM

Hey Matt...'dying', is very subjective.

If I were physically dying I would want a medical doctor.

However, If I were falsely accused of rape, I would be mentally dying, and would NEED a Juris Doctor.


Posted by: Stefan | Jan 26, 2012 1:39:38 PM

If I were dying from a medical illness, I would want my boyfriend, Dr. Thomas S., MD, PhD, to treat me. If it were a rare and freaky illness, I would love for him to add it to the ORIGINAL scientific research that he conducts every day on his job at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and publish an article about it in a peer reviewed medical research journal. When you are looking up any doctor's profile and accomplishments, you will usually see a list of peer reviewed articles that they have written and published in medical journals both during and after medical school. This is part of the medical field.

If I were dying to finish my master's thesis in order to complete my Master's of Science in Education, I would still ask my boyfriend, Thomas S., MD, PhD, to assist me in setting up my thesis, setting my my orginal research data, collecting the data, and writing up the data in the thesis. I would also ask him to help edit and revise my thesis since he is an excellent & published researcher/writer, (and medcial doctor). If I have a legal problem like getting caught driving without insurance, I'll call a lawyer with a Juris Doctor, since I am not a licenced attorney even though I do have a JD. It is VERY likely that the attorney I hire will have written & even published a peer reviewed article for a journal in law school, and may even continue to publish peer reviewed articles in law review journals while he is currently practicicing law. In addition, every attorney who has filed a brief in any public court has published a written work in his field which has been reviewed by other attorneys and the judge and is available for anyone to read, critique, cite and comment.

Posted by: Lisa S., J.D. (DOCTOR) | Aug 7, 2012 11:26:42 AM

I could care less what self-depricating Mitchell thinks of his JD. Why do we give this guy an audience to create an issue that does not otherwise exist? My law degree reads: "Juris Doctor" - not bachelor, master, but "doctor". Deal with it Mitchell! Excuse me, Dr. Mitchell H. Rubinstein, otherwise all you are doing is downgrading our profession. That we are somehow lesser despite that we take about 8 to 10 more doctoral level classes than a PhD takes (as they use those classes to instead write and defend a dissertation). Both PhDs and JDs take approximately 90 semester credits post bachelors therefore, Dr. Rubinstein, I agree with the authoritative body at the ABA that states UNAMBIGUOUSLY that a JD is equivalent to a PhD.

Posted by: Stephen | Dec 10, 2012 8:36:25 PM

If you have a doctorate in any field, you are entitled to use the title "Doctor." Period. End of story.

That said, I don't think any attorney with a J.D. should refer to himself as "Doctor." Not because doing so is technically inaccurate. It isn't. But it is contrary to social custom, at least in the United States.

I'm a lawyer with a J.D. I believe my J.D. is a legitimate doctorate, but I don't call myself "Doctor" and I don't expect others to do so, either. Why not? Because I'm a lawyer.

In the United States, the title "Doctor" is usually reserved for physicians. Their use of the title, at least in professional settings, makes perfect sense. You go to see the doctor and there are many people working at the office. Before your examination, it is nice to know that the individual conducting the examination is the physician. So he enters the exam room and introduces himself as "Dr. Smith."

Outside the medical profession, it is common for people with Ph.D.s to be referred to as "Doctor," particularly in an academic context if the person is a professor. However, I haven't known too many Ph.D.s who used the title in social contexts outside academia.

One truth I have learned over the years is that the greater a person's insistence on being called "Doctor," the crappier the doctorate.

Posted by: Matthew Harris | Feb 23, 2013 4:27:54 PM

Stephen, are you always the smartest person in every conversation? Oops, I mean, Doctor Stephen. My bad, big boy.

Dr.? Uncle Ted

Posted by: Ted Nugent | Jan 23, 2014 2:48:25 PM

My Juris DOCTOR is every bit a doctoral degree as an MD, PhD, etc.. Every doctoral degree is equivalent.

Posted by: bob | Mar 30, 2014 6:15:20 PM

ahh attorneys are full of it.First, in most countries a law degree is a bachelor degree much like the medical doctor degree but typically a medical doctor spends about 6 years while a lawyer spends 4 years on his degree. A law degree has a low level of difficulty compared to say a bachelor in engineering or science. If we wanted to be accurate we should call it a three year Master in Law. Now we can play with words and want to sounds important so yes if you are full of it you can call yourself a doctor. Also another point most other languages have a different word for a medical doctor and for a PhD in research. And yes I have a law degree and a PhD and they are no way equal. The PhD is much more intellectually challenging, In all parts of the world you need a bachelor and a master before you start doing independent research where you have to publish peer reviewed original ideas and eventually defend your thesis in front of a committee. It is not the same as taking some classes and even doing a small 6 month dissertation which you would do for any master degree.

Posted by: james | May 22, 2014 5:32:19 AM

A lawyer is not really a “doctor,” despite the fact that their degree has the word “doctor” in it.

The JD is NOT a terminal degree (like the PhD). In fact, it is the only so-called “doctorate” I can think of that is lower than certain master’s degrees (particularly the Master of Laws degree, LLM). The lawyers with PhDs in law or SJD degrees are the REAL doctors of law. If a lawyer with a JD calls himself doctor around a lawyer with a PhD or SJD, he will probably get slapped, or at the very least, a dirty look.

The ABA will tell you that the JD should be considered equal to the PhD in academic settings, but they’re a bit biased and hardly a final authority on the subject. The JD is an undergraduate degree (the Bachelor of Law, LLB) in most countries. Less than a handful of countries around the world recognize JD degrees. They are not equivalent to PhDs in any way.

With regards to dissertations, etc., terminal degrees do not always require them. There are two basic types of doctorates: research doctorates and professional doctorates. Research doctorates, such as PhDs, focus on original research and require dissertations. Professional doctorates, such as DBAs, EdDs, MDs, etc., do not require original research, and they focus on the practical application of existing research.

With the exception of an experimental application of some form of JDs in the late 19th century, they did not even exist, for the most part, until the 1960s (with a few exceptions). Prior to that, law degrees were undergraduate Bachelor of Law (LB) degrees (which they probably should still be).

That being said, any lawyer without a PhD or a SJD who calls himself or herself a “doctor” needs to have his/her head examined. There are plenty of them out there, however.

The JD is a professional degree and it is a very strange degree because it does not really fit anywhere. It is not a terminal degree (as nearly all other doctorates are), it is lower than a master’s degree (master of laws is higher than a doctor of jurisprudence), and it is equal to bachelor’s degrees in other countries (bachelor of laws).

Posted by: Tom | Jun 24, 2014 8:01:48 PM

That is enough self-delusion and narcissism from America's 1.5 million lawyers. It's time to wake up people.

Posted by: Don | Aug 23, 2014 1:24:19 PM

Context is everything. If you use the title "doctor" to the general public, they believe that you are a physician. Rightly so. If you hold yourself out to the public as a "doctor" and don't have an MD or DO, you may be misleading people. In the right context, i.e. academia, a JD can rightly call him/herself "Dr." If universities did not think that JDs were doctors like PhDs, EdD's PsyD's PharmD's etc. then they would not use the term doctor when they award the degree. A JD studies about the same amount of time that most doctorate holders do and so I wholeheartedly agree with the ABA that the degree is on the same plane as other doctorates. Even so, in many parts of the academic world, the PhD is the degree with the highest reputation and I won't disagree with that estimation here.

In the law we do not traditionally call lawyers "doctor" and instead the honorifics we use are are attorney at law and "Esquire." Being an attorney is the status that is important, far more than just getting the law degree. Lawyers have been reprimanded for using the term "Dr" because they were using the term to deceive people.

Frankly, unless I taught at a university where I thought it would be acceptable, I would never call myself "Dr." (Some colleges and universities customarily distinguish between holders of MAs as "professors" and everyone with a doctorate is called "doctor.") On the other hand, I also believe that as a licensed attorney with a JD (and an MA) I am on the same plane as the MDs and PhDs that I work with and deserve the same level of professional respect.

Posted by: Pa Lawyer | Jul 24, 2015 11:01:03 AM

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