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What Is the Difference Between J.D., Lawyer, Attorney, and Esquire?

JD or Esq. working on a legal case
By Brett Snider, Esq. | Updated by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Leave it to lawyers to make even a name complicated, right? 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." You may see "Attorney-at-Law" on business cards, or even "Counselor-at-Law."

What, if anything, distinguishes these titles? Not much. As commonly used in the United States, the difference between J.D. and Esq. is the ability to practice law. Lawyer and attorney, on the other hand, really do mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably.

What's the Definition of J.D. (Juris Doctor)?

"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 suffixes like "Ph.D." or "M.D.," a J.D. indicates that the titleholder has completed 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 them to practice law before being admitted to the bar.

There are more than a few people 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.

Finally, it should be noted that advanced law degrees are called “LLMs” (master of laws). Just like with J.D.s, this denotes a person has an advanced legal education, but does not necessarily indicate the person is able to practice law or represent clients. If you see "LLM" after a name, that person has an advanced legal degree in addition to a J.D.

What's the Definition of Esq. (Esquire)?

"Esquire" (or its abbreviation, “Esq.”) is not any kind of official title. 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 pretentious), 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.

"Esquire" originally referred to the helpers of people knighted by the King or Queen of England (and for people in certain businesses and trades). This has little to do with modern law practice, but the custom has lingered and seemed to early American lawyers to be a good reflection of their status.

Attorney vs. Lawyer

Attorney and lawyer mean the same thing. Attorney derives from an Old French word for lawyer ("attorn"), while lawyer derives from the Old English word ("lawe"). That we use both today is more a reflection of the complicated history of the English language rather than any kind of legal distinction.

Only people who are licensed to practice law should advertise themselves as either an attorney or lawyer. In England (from which our legal system derives), a law practice is distinguished between two types of lawyers: solicitors and barristers. Barristers are the ones who wear wigs and argue in court, while solicitors do the day-to-day legal tasks and paperwork.

There is no such distinction in America. After obtaining a license to practice law in a jurisdiction, a lawyer/attorney is able to appear in any state court on a client's behalf. In some cases, a lawyer may need to get licensed to appear in a particular court. For example, bankruptcy is conducted in federal court, so bankruptcy lawyers must take the extra step of getting licensed to appear in federal courts before representing clients there. But they do not get a title change for doing so.

The bottom line is that when seeking whether an attorney is licensed to practice law, you can look them up on your state's bar association website. If they are there and listed as able to represent clients, then they are an attorney/lawyer/counselor-at-law/J.D./esq., etc. If they are not, then they may have a J.D. but cannot represent you or provide legal advice in any legal matter.

A Legal Professional By Any Other Name ...

When choosing a licensed attorney, don't just rely on the "Esq." or the word "Attorney" after their name and assume they are licensed to practice. Every attorney should be able to provide you with a state bar number that you can use to verify their license as well as records of unethical behavior or malpractice.

Finally, you do not need to address an attorney by any specific honorific. You do not need to start an email with "Dear Attorney Smith," for example. It is customary to simply use Mr. or Mrs. Smith in correspondence.

The Simple Answer

There's little to distinguish between the names that lawyers call themselves. Some attorneys prefer to go by "counselor-at-law" because they want to highlight that they can provide guidance, not just recite facts and laws. Sometimes, it just sounds better to use one word over another, for example in the sentence "I am a family law attorney" as opposed to "family law lawyer".

Whatever your lawyer (or lawyer friends) prefer to call themselves is okay, so long as they are not misleading anyone by the name or suffix they use. When deciding which lawyer to hire, the attorney's title should not be a large consideration.

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