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When you're looking for an attorney, you may be confronted by a confusing slew of letters after someone's name, including "J.D." and "Esq."
While those abbreviations are both associated with legal professionals, their meanings aren't exactly the same.
The difference between J.D. and Esq., as commonly used in the United States, is the ability to practice law.
"J.D." stands for Juris Doctor -- also known as a law degree. You may encounter the term "J.D." after someone's name in a resume, CV, or in an academic paper.
Similar to other academic terms like "Ph.D.," a J.D. indicates that the titleholder has attended and graduated from law school. Having a J.D. from an accredited law school entitles that person to apply for and take any state's bar exam, but it does not allow him or her to practice law before being admitted to the bar.
There are more than a few persons who graduate from law school with a J.D. and have chosen not to take, or failed to pass, the bar exam. They are not members of the bar, and they are not authorized to give legal advice.
"Esq." or "Esquire" is an honorary title that is placed after a practicing lawyer's name. Practicing lawyers are those who have passed a state's (or Washington, D.C.'s) bar exam and have been licensed by that jurisdiction's bar association.
Although lawyers may often choose to leave the "Esq." off of letters and emails between friends and loved ones (as it might seem stuffy and unfamiliar), in America, it is commonly used when lawyers conduct business.
Just as you might see "Tom Toothington, D.D.S." outside a dentist's office, lawyers may use "Esq." on signs, letterheads, business cards, and signature lines. It is also acceptable for attorneys to use "Esq." on official court documents, but the requirement that attorneys also include their state bar numbers makes this suffix somewhat irrelevant.
There's no law mandating "Esq." only be used by practicing attorneys; it's entirely customary (though some states have disciplined unlicensed J.D.s for using "Esq.," as the ABA Journal has pointed out). In addition, some practicing lawyers prefer using "J.D." or the phrase "Attorney at Law" after their names, as they consider "Esquire" to be haughty or old-fashioned.
However, when choosing a lawyer, don't just rely on the "Esq." or the word "Attorney" after her name and assume she is licensed to practice. Every attorney should be able to provide you with a state bar number that you can use to verify his or her license as well as records of unethical behavior or malpractice.
Use this directory of state bar associations to check out your next potential attorney.