I don't quite understand the education process for lawyers, but I do understand there are a number of different degrees, and one of them is 'JD', the juris doctor. My Latin is quite rusty, but I believe that is "Doctor of Law."

So why are they not called "doctor" in common practice, like any PhD is? Is the JD actually not similar to a doctorate program? If not, then why does it take the name doctor?

I understand that the JD is what they call a "1st degree" and there are even higher degrees. The LLM, for example, is a "Master of Laws", which really confuses things now because "master" degrees are normally less than "doctor" degrees. So if a JD is not not called a "doctor" for some logical reason, what about the LLM, since it is a higher degree?

  • 5
    In the rest of the common law world (and in the US until the mid 20th century), the basic law degree is the LL.B., which makes far more sense.
    – phoog
    Jul 12, 2015 at 7:19
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    @phoog Considering the LLB is a bachelor's degree, I suppose I agree, since that follows convention.
    – user608
    Jul 12, 2015 at 7:25
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    In English lawyers are (for reasons I don't understand) traditionally availed of the honorific "esquire."
    – feetwet
    Jul 12, 2015 at 16:18
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    In Brazil lawyers are traditionally addressed as "doctor" ("doutor" in Portuguese) even if they haven't a Doctor degree. Jul 15, 2015 at 4:54
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    @feetwet It would be more accurate to say that 'esquire' is used in the United States, since it is not commonly used in any other English-speaking country.
    – sjy
    Apr 13, 2017 at 9:11

10 Answers 10


The answer isn't really legal (though some jurisdictions regulate the use of such titles through statute), but academic. It depends on specific countries. Italy, for instance, allows all graduates, including undergraduates, to use the title doctor.

However, in general the title doctor is reserved for those in medical professions, upon graduation, or holders of post-graduate doctoral degrees - the PhD, DLitt., LLD, and so on.

The purpose is, for medical graduates, to allow them to identify themselves as medical practitioners.

However, for doctoral graduates, the purpose is to recognise your contributions to the academic field. The JD is a qualifying degree - you've hardly contributed to the field.

The JD is absolutely not similar to a doctoral program. It is far more similar to the LLB, however its origins are rooted in the equalisation of professional degrees in the USA - the LLB was conferred upon those who had already completed their first degree, and so the change to a JD was merely so that they could confer a "second" degree.

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    Holders of master's degrees are not called "doctor" even though they are post-graduate degrees that are often terminal and a J.D. is really closer to the master's degree than a PhD.
    – ohwilleke
    May 7, 2018 at 1:44

To add to jimsung's detailed response, some U.S. state ethics panels have issued opinions regarding the usage of the title "doctor." Over the last couple decades, formal positions suggesting that JDs ought not to use the title (including the ABA's own position) have begun to erode as the various states have relaxed the strictures (albeit with cautionary guidance).

Here are a few good reads:

Lawyers are Doctors, Too ...concerning state panels

Lawyers and the title "Doctor" ...from a JD who insists on being called "Doctor"

Council Statements ...from the ABA on it's position that the JD is equivalent to the PhD for employment purposes

The last two links should be read with a grain of salt. In paragraph 2 of the third link, it's important to remember trade organizations like the ABA have incentives to promote the status of their regulated degrees (e.g. the JD). The equivalence in paragraph 2 is based on an a subset of the PhD requirements rather than their full complement. In particular, it equates roughly a year of legal coursework (the difference between 90 and 60 credit hours) with all of the omitted PhD requirements. In many doctorate programs this omission amounts to roughly 4-7 years of teaching and original research.

At the end of the day, much comes down to culture, custom, and the importance of disambiguation. Even state ethics opinions that authorize use of the term are careful to emphasize that its use ought not to confound existing custom.

  • 5
    That third paper is... misleading. A PhD is more than the coursework, and to dismiss the dissertation as relevant, when it will probably consume much more time than the coursework, is just plain wrong. The second paper rests much of its arguments on the assertion that the meaning of doctor is "learned man", when it is clear that any layperson will assume medical competency, not just general education. There's a reason why there are humorous shirts that say I'm not that kind of doctor, after all - everyone gets the joke, too.
    – jimsug
    Jul 12, 2015 at 22:18
  • @jimsug Just because people generally think of medical doctor first when they hear the word doctor does not mean they are ignorant of the fact that many educated persons have earned the honorific. I think most people realize that psychiatrists, veterinarians, and dentists are also called doctor, despite not being in medical practice. I agree a smaller percentage, but still most, know that all PhD's are also called doctor.
    – user608
    Jul 12, 2015 at 22:40
  • @fred Sure. But even in your examples, there's some element of medicine, whether it's surgery or some other treatment of ailments on humans or otherwise. In any case, I was merely pointing out that even if the primary definition of doctor were "learned man" (it isn't), it's just as important what someone's (particularly a layperson's) impression of you is.
    – jimsug
    Jul 12, 2015 at 22:44
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    In fact, I think I remember reading that it's strictly prohibited for lawyers without an MD to use the title "doctor" in cases where medical expertise is involved (like malpractice cases), because in common speech "doctor" means "physician."
    – cpast
    Jul 13, 2015 at 2:58
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    @fredsbend Pshychiatrists, at least in the US, go to the same medical school, take the same courses, and receive the same degree (MD or DO) as heart surgeons, pulmanologists, pediatricians, etc. do. Are you possibly thinking of psychologists?
    – Sean
    Dec 6, 2016 at 16:27

The customary honorific in the United States used to identify someone who has a J.D. (doctor of laws a.k.a. "Juris Doctor"), which is a recent invention, or an L.L.B. (bachelor of laws), the more common historical name for the same degree, if that person is also admitted to the practice of law, is to state someone's name followed by the honorific "esquire". Hence, "Andrew Oh-Willeke, Esquire" or "Andrew Oh-Willeke, Esq."

Strictly speaking "Esquire" should generally only be used by a third person referring to a lawyer, and not by the lawyer himself or herself, but sometimes lawyers use the title reflexively anyway to clarify to someone to whom the lawyer is writing that the author is a lawyer.

Esquire is a quasi-aristocratic rank in England immediately below that of a knight (the lowest aristocratic rank and not always hereditary) and above that of gentleman, that is not a true aristocrat as it is not a hereditary rank and does not have a well defined meaning other than that someone is "upper class".

This vague modern English meaning was crystalized to have a more specific meaning in the U.S. (per the previous Wikipedia link):

In the United Kingdom, Esquire historically was a title of respect accorded to men of higher social rank, above the rank of gentleman and below the rank of knight. It later came to be used as a general courtesy title for any man in a formal setting, usually as a suffix to his name, as in "John Smith, Esq.", with no precise significance. In the United Kingdom today, it is still commonly used as a written style of address in formal or professional correspondence.[4][5] In certain formal contexts, it remains an indication of a social status that is recognised in the formal Order of Precedence.[6]

In the United States, Esquire is mostly used to denote a lawyer; in a departure from traditional use, it is used irrespective of gender. In letters, a lawyer is customarily addressed by adding the suffix Esquire (abbreviated Esq.), preceded by a comma, after the lawyer's full name.[7] An exception to this would be the American magazine Esquire which, as a publication for men rather than lawyers, uses the term in the original British sense.

As of 1894, when the term still had a formal definition in England, it was defined as follows:

  • The younger sons of peers and their eldest sons.
  • The eldest sons of knights and their eldest sons.
  • The chiefs of ancient families are esquires by prescription.
  • Esquires by creation or office. Such the heralds and serjeants at arms and some others, who are constituted esquires by receiving a collar of SS. Judges and other officers of state, justices of the peace, and the higher naval and military officers are designated esquires in their patents or commissions. Doctors in the several faculties, and barristers at law, are considered as esquires, or equal to esquires. None, however, of these offices or degrees convey gentility to the posterity of their holders.
  • The last kind of esquires are those of knights of the bath; each knight appoints two to attend upon him at his installation and at coronations.

The use of the term "Esquire" treads some fine lines, because the United States Constitution categorically forbids the creation of true titles of nobility. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states in the petinent part: "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States" and Article II, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution states in the pertinent part: "No state shall . . . grant any Title of Nobility."

The fact that many lawyers do not have a J.D. and instead have an L.L.B, and more importantly, that no lawyers had a J.D. at the time that customary forms of address for lawyers were formulated (the legal profession in the United States was formalized in the late 1800s and the first law school was established at Harvard in 1870), is part of the reason that the title "Dr." is not used.

The degree "Juris Doctor" was not widely used until the 1960s. The first law school to grant a J.D., the University of Chicago Law School, was founded in 1902 and wouldn't have had a graduate with a J.D. until 1905 or so. As explained in the Wikipedia article "Juris Doctor":

The University of Chicago Law School was the first to offer it.[84] While approval was still pending at Harvard, the degree was introduced at many other law schools including at the law schools at NYU, Berkeley, Michigan and Stanford. Because of tradition, and concerns about less prominent universities implementing a J.D. program, prominent eastern law schools like those of Harvard, Yale and Columbia refused to implement the degree. Indeed, pressure from them led almost every law school (except at the University of Chicago and other law schools in Illinois) to abandon the J.D. and readopt the LL.B. as the first law degree by the 1930s.[85]

It was only after 1962 that a new push—this time begun at less-prominent law schools—successfully led to the universal adoption of the J.D. as the first law degree. Student and alumni support were key in the LL.B.-to-J.D. change, and even the most prominent schools were convinced to make the change: Columbia and Harvard in 1969, and Yale, last, in 1971.[86] Nonetheless, the LL.B. at Yale retained the didactical changes of the "practitioners courses" of 1826 and was very different from the LL.B. in common law countries other than Canada.[66]

As noted in the answers and comments to this question, many countries with a different historical experience do address lawyers as "Dr." and in Japan, lawyers (or at least the Japanese equivalent of barristers) are addressed "Sensei" which literally means "teacher" or perhaps "professor" but is a term of respect used for all learned professionals (including doctors).

It is improper and often considered fraudulent to use "Esquire" if you have a J.D. or L.L.B degree, but are not admitted to the practice of law. People in that position can write: "Andrew Oh-Willeke, J.D.", although even that puts you on thin ice as it might be used to give the impression that someone is admitted to the practice of law, when they are not.

I was a professor for a while, and many of my peers who were not lawyers used the title "Dr." as they had PhDs. It was not considered proper, even then, for either me or a peer who also had a J.D., to go by the title "Dr." and instead I was addressed "Professor Oh-Willeke" or "Mr. Oh-Willeke".

All of these useages are, of course, arbitrary, but they are also well established. As noted in the citations made by Pat W. in that answer, ethics opinions have not reached a consensus on the ethics of a lawyer using the title "Dr." since the J.D. came into wide use, although the "Council" statement referenced in that answer applies primarily to make clear that a J.D. is equivalent to a PhD for the narrow purpose of being qualified to be a university professor, and not for the purpose of title of address.

  • 1
    Great answer! You might be primed to illuminate the curious question on Titles of Nobility itself.
    – feetwet
    Dec 7, 2016 at 18:11
  • Maybe. That is a hard question. I think I know the answer, but it would be hard to verify.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 7, 2016 at 18:16
  • Unverified but helpful answers are still encouraged! (And I've seen plenty of occasions where verification has been found and added by another user.)
    – feetwet
    Dec 7, 2016 at 18:20

In the US, the terminal degree in law equivalent to an academic doctorate (i.e. a Ph.D.) is not the J.D., or the L.L.M. It's the S.J.D. Here's Harvard's program. Here's UCLA's.

Hardly anyone gets them anymore. Here's a Georgetown Law Weekly blurb.

Lawyers may jokingly call each other "doctor." I do that sometimes when I run into someone from my law school class. It's affected and pretentious to insist upon it seriously, because (as above) the J.D. is not equivalent to a Ph.D.

  • Thanks for the links. Why is the SJD a rare degree? Why would one seek it?
    – user608
    Jul 17, 2015 at 16:39
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    I'm speculating, but it would seem to be a matter of practicality and utility. The Georgetown article suggests the degree is more or less obsolete and unnecessary as far as the legal field is concerned (including law school professorship). If the idea is to become a university academic, a Ph.D. in "Academic Discipline and Law" might be preferable both in terms of departmental hiring requirements and perceived status. Which would you bet all that time and tuition on? It would be interesting to see data on those who do get it: perhaps it's mostly already established law school profs.
    – daffy
    Jul 17, 2015 at 16:53
  • @daffy, the majority of candidates here hold law degrees that aren't JDs, which seems to support the Georgetown blurb you cited
    – Pat W.
    Jul 20, 2015 at 20:14
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    "Hardly anyone gets them anymore." No one ever got LLM or SJD degrees with any frequency. Most are academic graduate degrees mostly offered to international student academics studying comparative law. Some LLMs are also offered as a specialization credential to practicing lawyers who have a J.D. or LLB (most commonly in tax). Most law professors have either a JD or a JD and a PhD. Very few law professors have an LLM and almost none in the U.S. have an SJD.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 7, 2016 at 18:01

In some Eastern European countries lawyers are in fact called doctors. They use this title as physicians (medical doctors) do.


There is actually a terminal law degree. It is Doctor of Juridical Science - J.S.D. It is appropriate to use the "Doctor" honorific as it would for any PhD.

  • 1
    Welcome to Law.SE! Are you able to explain this in a way that's different than the other answer that says the same thing? (My guess is that's why your response was flagged.)
    – Pat W.
    Dec 13, 2020 at 13:03

National Education Association provides a good explanation and differentiates between a doctoral research degree and professional doctor's degree: A doctor's degree that is conferred upon completion of a program providing the knowledge and skills for the recognition, credential, or license required for professional practice. The degree is awarded after a period of study such that the total time to the degree, including both pre-professional and professional preparation, equals at least six full-time equivalent academic years. Some of these degrees were formerly classified as first-professionaland may include: Chiropractic (D.C. or D.C.M.); Dentistry (D.D.S. or D.M.D.); Law (J.D.); Medicine (M.D.); Optometry (O.D.); Osteopathic Medicine (D.O); Pharmacy (Pharm.D.); Podiatry (D.P.M., Pod.D., D.P.); or, Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.), and others, as designated by the awarding institution.


American lawyers adopted "Esq." some time ago to denote somebody qualified to practice law because traditionally you didn't have to go to law school to practice law in this country. Lots of American attorneys throughout history and to this day didn't earn a JD, or legal degree of any type, including guys you have heard of like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. It was, and still is, considered disrespectful, awkward, and arguably unethical to call some practicing attorneys and judges "Doctor", where other equally qualified professionals don't get the title.

You can imagine the title throwing off the egalitarian dynamics of a courtroom where one attorney appearing before the judge insists on being called "Doctor" where the opposing party's attorney, or even the judge, would be referred to differently. It also might be misleading to the public if an attorney advertised themselves as "Doctor", because it might imply that they are "more qualified" to practice law than another lawyer may be, which is not true.

  • 1
    This answer might be better if it cited sources for these facts.
    – Ryan M
    Dec 21, 2020 at 10:04

A JD program (applied professional practice based legal doctoral degree) has significantly evolved and developed throughout the years to become a full doctoral degree. Although some course content such as the first year may be foundational doctrinal courses that overlap an undergraduate course, law schools none the less are taught at a graduate level with the same graduate 80-90 units required after a bachelors degree resembling the same units of a formal PhD program (~90 units). The years it takes to complete a PhD should not be the variable considered, since it is a self-paced funded/not funded research endeavor that may take years to complete but the bottom line units are the same as a JD. Additionally, past the first year of law school, students are required to take advanced legal course work with practical training and applied legal research elements, that allows the lawyer to in fact be a gatekeeper in the profession. Also, mind you, 7 years is just the minimum, I myself will be in school for 12 years before earning a JD (I completed a masters along the way). A PhD and JD are both doctorate degrees but differ in application. A PhD is an entirely theoretical scholarly body of work that remains in the academic world. A professional doctorate applies theory to practical vocational applications. You don’t want a lawyer that only advises you in theory, you want a lawyer that can conduct practical research and advise you with “real world” professional advise.

A JD is a full doctoral degree.

The only professional in society that can call him/her self a "doctor" are physicians. The more appropriate address for a PhD or a JD at the university is "professor" which by definition means a teacher (doctor) of the highest rank at the university.

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    "The only professional in society that can call him/her self a 'doctor' are physicians." This really isn't true. Plenty of PhDs are commonly referred to as "Dr. So-and-so."
    – Ryan M
    Nov 10, 2020 at 20:55

The reason is exactly this:

A person of reason is to PhD as a lawyer is to a JD. But a person of reason isn't a PhD, nor a lawyer a JD, without some Truth or Gravitas in which to base you doctorate upon.

In either case of having a doctorate, you must be able to defend it without some institution to help you: you are standing on your own, all "grown up", as it were.

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