Richard Levick speaks to Reuters
about how communications professionals who are non-practicing lawyers can still strategically deploy their legal titles in order to build bridges.
Professional titles can be tricky. Just ask The Wall Street Journal, which is getting serious blowback for a recent column by Joseph Epstein. He suggested that Jill Biden, whom he addressed as “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo,” should quit using the title “Dr.” because she has a doctorate in education rather than a medical degree.
Calling Biden, who earned her Ed.D. in 2007 when she was 55 years old, “kiddo” strikes me as just plain rude. But the piece did get me thinking about honorifics and when to use them—especially when it comes to lawyers who style themselves “Esquire.”
In my mind, the term will forever be linked to the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” in which one of the titular characters—a good-natured doofus of a teenage boy whose primary interests are playing guitar and meeting “historical babes”—exuberantly introduces himself as “Bill S. Preston, Esquire.”
Why? Because it sounds funny. But it does underscore how an over-fondness for proclaiming oneself an Esquire can turn into a joke.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the term “Esquire” is nowhere to be found in the biography of Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff on the DLA Piper website. (Emhoff announced last week that he’s resigning his partnership and plans to teach at Georgetown University Law Center next semester.)
Other successful lawyers shy away from the honorific as well.
Edward Reines, who co-heads the patent litigation practice at Weil Gotshal & Manges, told me, “I cannot remember ever using the title ‘Esq.’ for myself. And others only seem to bestow that title upon me when they are trying to sell me something in junk mail.”
Likewise, Boies Schiller Flexner partner Steven Froot said, “I never use Esquire or Esq. following my name.”
He added, “I can’t think of a situation in which a lawyer’s use of the suffix ‘Esq.’ would not be seen as ‘putting on airs,’ as it doesn’t seem to serve any function.”
The title, which originally meant “shield bearer,” dates back to the Middle Ages and designated a member of the English gentry aspiring to knighthood.
In a 1994 formal opinion on the use of the honorific, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York noted “it is not clear how the title ‘Esquire’ came to be used so commonly (and seemingly so exclusively) by lawyers in the United States. There is no authority that reserves the title ‘Esquire’ for the exclusive use of lawyers.”
The bar association added that the title “does not legally designate an individual as a lawyer because it is not conferred in this country as an academic degree or license. It has, however, been adopted by lawyers by convention as a form of designation.”
Indeed, it’s still common to use “Esquire” as a courtesy when corresponding with lawyers.
However, manners expert Emily Post in her advice column cautions that there are specific rules of usage. That is, you can address a lawyer using the standard courtesy title of Mr. or Ms. (as in Mr. Thomas Jefferson). Alternatively, you can skip the courtesy title and put “Esq.” after the person’s name (“Thomas Jefferson, Esq.”). But according to Post, “You would never use both the courtesy title (Mr. or Ms.) and the professional designation ‘Esq.'”
Nonetheless, Sidley Austin first-chair litigator Vernon Winters eschews the title altogether.
“Without judging what others might do, I don’t use ‘Esquire,'” he told me. “The companies for which I work, and the courts before which I practice, already know that I’m a lawyer. More fundamentally, I serve those companies and those courts; adding ‘Esquire’ after my name would add a layer of distance that it seems, at least to me, best not to create.”
That said, some non-practicing lawyers have found strategically deploying the title can build bridges.
Richard Levick, who is chairman and CEO of crisis communications firm Levick, attaches “Esq.” to his name for a simple reason. He and his firm have represented more than 300 of the world’s largest law firms. Does making it clear that he has a J.D. add credibility? I asked him.
“When we started the firm nearly 25 years ago, almost all of our clients were the world’s major law firms,” he told me. “It was and remains important for them to know as the CEO, I am part of their fraternity. We may be selling communications, but we understand their point of view.”