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Find out why lawyers are called esquire and why this hasn’t always been the case
At times it can seem like attorneys make up words just to confuse the general population. But the term esquire (often abbreviated as Esq. and appended to the last name of an attorney) has been around for centuries. In fact, the term originally had nothing to do with attorneys or the law.
Let’s take a look at the history of the word esquire and how it’s used by most people today.
What does the term esquire mean?
In the United States, the term esquire is a title of courtesy given to a lawyer. The term is often abbreviated and appended to the lawyer’s surname when addressing the lawyer in written form. For example: Jane Doe, Esq.
The word esquire can be traced back to the Latin scutarius, which meant “shield-bearer.” Thus, the term was originally used to draw a distinction between shield-makers (slaves) and shield-bearers (freemen). By the middle ages, scutarius had given rise to the French word esquire and was used as a title of dignity to describe a person above a gentleman and below a knight.
Sometime in the sixteenth century, esquire became an umbrella term for the holders of various prestigious offices, including justices of the peace, sheriffs, and sergeants.
Over time, the term became more and more popular among lawyers. Although there is no authority that reserves the title for lawyers, esquire is used today in the United States almost exclusively to refer to lawyers. In fact, some states have gone as far as to hold that the use of esquire by a non-lawyer amounts to the unauthorized practice of law.
Although esquire is used to describe male and female attorneys today, the term historically applied to men only (there is no female equivalent). This fact has caused at least one legal scholar at West Virginia University School of Law to question whether the term should be used to describe female attorneys.
In England, the term doesn’t carry the same professional meaning as in the United States. Rather, it’s mostly an obsolete courtesy title appended to a man’s name when he has no other title.
The popular magazine Esquire has nothing to do with attorneys or the law. So why is the magazine called Esquire?
In November 1932, publisher David Smart and editor Arnold Gingrich sought to create a magazine that focused on “masculine interests.” They rejected the names Stag, Beau, and Trim. At a loss, Arnold Gingrich received a letter one morning addressed to Arnold Gingrich, Esq. Arnold liked the sound of the word esquire, and Esquire magazine was born.
Can anyone use the term esquire?
You can safely use the term esquire to refer to any attorney. Although it’s technically appropriate to refer to an attorney as esquire in conversation (“Hello, is this Bill Smith, esquire?”), the term is typically reserved for use in formal writing.
Notably, it is incorrect to use the title with any other title:
Dear Bill Smith, Esq. = correct
Dear Mr. Bill Smith, Esq. = incorrect
Whether or not you can use the term to refer to yourself is a bit more complicated. Technically, esquire is an honorific designation to be conferred on others, not oneself.
To help drive this point home, here is a short test:
Samantha Robinson just graduated from law school and passed the bar. She wants to have business cards made. Which of the following is the correct name for her business cards?
A. Samantha Robinson, Esquire
B. Samantha Robinson, Esquiress
C. Ms. Samantha Robinson, Esquire
D. Ms. Samantha Robinson, Esquiress
E. Samantha Robinson, Esq.
F. Ms. Samantha Robinson, Esq.
G. Samantha Robinson
H. All are correct
The answer is (G) because the term esquire is not used to describe oneself.
Practically speaking, however, lawyers commonly refer to themselves as esquires in books, magazines, business cards, letters, and online. Clients and prospective clients aren’t likely to bat an eye if you follow suit.
If you’re not a licensed attorney, it’s probably best to avoid using the term to describe yourself. In some states, the use of the term esquire by a non-lawyer may amount to the unauthorized practice of law, which is a crime that can result in significant jail time.
Intent on using the term esquire to describe yourself? There are five steps you need to complete to become an attorney:
- Step one: Obtain an undergraduate degree. Law schools want well-rounded students, so there’s no requirement that you study a particular subject (such as pre-law) as an undergraduate.
- Step two: Take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The LSAT is a standardized test administered several times each year by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) at testing centers around the country. Most law schools require that you take the LSAT in order to be admitted. What’s more, law schools generally place a lot of emphasis on your LSAT score.
- Step three: Apply to law schools. Increasingly, applicants are looking at gender and race data when deciding where to apply.
- Step four: Complete law school. Under the ABA rules, a law student must complete no fewer than 83 credit hours in order to graduate from an ABA-approved law school.
- Step five: Pass the bar exam. Before you can practice law, you’re required to pass the bar exam of the state in which you want to practice. Learn more about how to register, prepare, and pass the bar exam.
What other terms are used to refer to legal professionals?
Esquire isn’t the only term used to refer to those who practice law (this sounds like the beginning of a joke, but we’ll let you finish it). Those who practice law and those who work in the legal field are called all sorts of things, including:
- Attorney, attorney-at-law, lawyer, and counselor-at-law. These terms are used synonymously to describe someone who is licensed to practice law in the United States.
- Barrister. A barrister is a type of lawyer (a trial lawyer and litigator) in Great Britain. The term barrister is not used to refer to those who practice law in the United States.
- Juris Doctor (JD). In most cases, you need to earn a JD by completing law school in order to practice law in the United States.
- Master of Laws (LLM). The LLM is a one-year or two-year program for students who have already received a JD. LLM students typically focus on one particular area of law, such as taxation or intellectual property.
- Doctor of Judicial Science (SJD). The SJD is considered the highest level of law degree. An SJD is a good option for people who have earned their JD or LLM and wish to become law professors or some other type of scholar.
- Master of Legal Studies (MLS). The MLS is for individuals who want knowledge of the law but don’t aspire to become practicing lawyers. Graduates may work in law enforcement, regulatory agencies, journalism, or business. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and the program typically takes 16 to 28 months to complete.
- Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR). An MDR degree is for individuals who want to provide resolution and negotiation skills. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree.
Esquire is a perfectly acceptable term to use, just be sure to use the term properly. In the meantime, here are some other articles about legal terms you should know:
- Legal terms every law student should know
- Glossary of basic personal injury law terms
- Plaintiff vs. defendant - learn the difference
James C. Sproat (“Jim”) of Chappell, Smith & Arden, P.A.
South Carolina personal injury & workers’ compensation attorney
What is your role in the attorney-client relationship?
I think it is appropriate that attorneys are called by many names. The one that I identify with most is counselor. Although most of the time, attorneys are there to solve problems, there are times when just listening to a client and what they are going through is the most helpful thing we can do.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.