The term esquire, often abbreviated Esq., often appears at the end of an attorney’s name. You may have seen it in your attorney’s letterhead or the attorney’s signature, both on formal letters and emails. What, exactly, does the term mean?
In legal terms, the definition of esquire, in America, simply means someone who can practice law. Any lawyer can take on the title esquire, regardless of what type of law they practice. Family lawyers, personal injury attorneys, and corporate lawyers all have the right to use esquire as a title. In general, the lawyer does not have the right to use the term esquire until they graduate from law school and pass the Bar exam, conferring on them the right to practice law in a given state. After graduating from law school, but before passing the bar, the student may add the abbreviation J.D., for Juris Doctor, after their name.
As a title, esquire originated in Europe. It applied to the apprentice, or squire, of a knight, who hoped to acquire a noble rank as he rose to knighthood himself. In America, however, the constitution prohibits noble titles.
The Use of Esquire in Verbal Communication
While the term esquire could see use in very formal settings as part of an introduction—”This is Martin Jones, Esquire,” for example—most of the time, it appears in formal written correspondence more often than in verbal communication. In general, lawyers should not refer to themselves as esquire, though others may introduce themselves that way to establish their profession as part of the conversation.
An attorney’s colleague or friend might use the formal title to explain how they know the law when discussing a legal topic, or to help designate them as an attorney whose word bears weight in legal negotiations. Most of the time, however, simply introducing a lawyer by name and indicating their profession will offer the same information.
Using Esq, or Esquire, in Written Communication
The term esquire, or the abbreviation Esq., gets used most often in legal communications. It offers a sign that you have communicated directly with an attorney, rather than a legal aid or someone else within the office. Most often, esquire serves as a notice that you need to pay attention to the content of a document, since it comes directly from a lawyer and not from someone else in the office. Many law offices have policies that will govern the use of esquire in the letterhead or an email signature line, which may need to fit specific criteria related to the firm’s image.
Note that, when using the term esquire as a formal form of address in written communication, it, like the term Dr., can replace the title associated with the person’s name. You might, for example, address a formal communication to Martin Sands, Esq., or to Mr. Martin Sands, but you would not want to address your communication to Mr. Martin Sands, Esq., if you want to keep the grammar and formality correct. You would also use the traditional title—Mr., Ms., or Mrs.—in the greeting of your message.
Acquiring the Right to Use the Title Esquire
To use the title esquire, an individual must go through several steps to acquire a legal education and receive the right to practice law in a given area.
Step One: Passing the LSAT
The LSAT offers a rigorous, half-day exam that tests the student’s analytical reasoning, logical reasoning, and writing skills. The multiple-choice test has sections for logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, and reading comprehension. It also contains an unscored variable section, which asks students to answer questions considered for use on the test in future years to ensure that they remain appropriate for a diverse audience.
The LSAT has scores ranging from 120 to 180. Top candidates who want to go to the most prestigious law schools in the country aim to score at 165 or above on the LSAT. Each year, students vie for high scores that will get them admitted to law school.
Step Two: Law School
Most law schools require three years of intensive study. Before they can attend law school, potential lawyers must already have a bachelor’s degree, though they can hold that degree in any field. A degree in a field that helps prepare students for a deeper understanding of the law, however, can make it easier for students to excel in law school. In law school, students will have a chance to go over a variety of legal courses, including courses in administrative law, civil litigation, family law, taxation, wills and trusts, and other specific aspects of the law.
While going through law school, some students may choose to specialize in a specific area: family law, for example, or personal injury law. By specializing, potential lawyers can deepen their understanding of a specific branch of the law so they can deliver a high standard of service to their clients when they join or start a firm after graduating.
Simply getting into law school can pose a significant challenge for many students. Not only must students have a solid understanding of the concepts they need to pass the LSAT, they may need to show a solid GPA and a commitment to extracurricular activities that help them stand out from the crowd of applicants.
Step Three: Passing the Bar
Once students graduate from law school, they cannot simply go out and jump into their first position with a law firm. Instead, students will have to take one final exam: the state Bar exam. In most states, the Bar governs regulation and licensing of attorneys, controlling who can practice law within specific states and what standards attorneys must continue to hold.
The Bar exam assesses whether a particular candidate has the necessary knowledge to practice law within a specific state. In addition to multiple-choice questions, the Bar exam includes an essay component that will give a candidate the chance to show the full extent of their knowledge and why they should have the right to practice law in a specific state.
Once a student passes the bar exam and the Bar confers upon them the right to practice law in the state, they add the title Esquire to their communications. For many attorneys, this title represents the culmination of the hard work they put into their studies and efforts as well as their right to practice law and have their voice heard within the legal community.
It becomes a much-earned celebration of the attorney’s effort toward acquiring that position, even before they accept their first position within a law firm or work with their first client. Some state Bar exams create notably more stress and have a lower pass rate than others. Regardless of the state, however, overcoming that final obstacle offers cause for celebration.
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What the Esq. Title Means
Simply put, the title Esq. means that someone has the right to practice law within the state. Generally, it means that the individual in question has passed the Bar, which means they went through law school. It does not, however, automatically mean that the individual can offer comprehensive advice about specific areas of the law.
Once a lawyer graduates from law school and passes the Bar, they will often move on to a law firm. That law firm will typically practice a specific area of law, which means that the graduate will, if they have not already, specialize in that specific area of law. They will gradually deepen their understanding of those specific elements of the law. They may, however, have much less in-depth knowledge of other areas of the law.
Consider, for example, a lawyer who chooses to specialize in family law. They know what elements you should consider when drafting a child custody arrangement after your divorce, and can probably help you put together a will that closes any loopholes and ensures that your assets get distributed according to your intent after your death. They likely can’t, on the other hand, instruct you about the full compensation you deserve in a personal injury claim or represent you in court during a criminal trial.
Likewise, you would not want a personal injury attorney to serve as your sole source of advice when trying to determine how you should best handle a complicated custody claim. While an attorney who does not specialize in a specific area of the law might offer you a slightly better response than the average citizen on the street, they may not have the in-depth knowledge related to your specific case that you need to make effective legal decisions.
Can Lawyers Use the Term Esquire After Retirement?
Many attorneys choose to keep the honorific Esq. as part of their titles even after retirement, since indicates the effort that they put into their studies, their careers, and their support of the clients who came through their firm over the years. No official rule governs the use of esquire after retirement. However, retired lawyers should not use esquire to drum up business in another state as part of unauthorized practice, nor should they use it to represent themselves as currently-practicing lawyers. Instead, it serves as a reminder of their past commitments and practices.
Other Legal Abbreviations You Might Need to Know
As you communicate with your lawyer, you may see a variety of abbreviations used after attorneys’ names, especially when checking out the firm’s website or corresponding with lawyers throughout the firm.
These titles may include:
- LL.M. An LL.M. designation means that the attorney has earned a Master of Law degree, usually obtained through advanced legal study in a specific area. An LL.M. may indicate that the attorney has additional experience and study within a specific area of the law. You may want to look for an attorney who has an LL.M. if you need specific expertise in a given area of the law, especially when it comes to corporate law, which may include complicated issues.
- J.S.D. A J.S.D. designation shows that the attorney earned a Doctor of Science of Law degree, equivalent to the Ph.D. in law. These designations often indicate someone who will go on to become a legal professor or to study the law in greater depth. Lawyers with a J.S.D. may have exceptional knowledge and understanding in their fields, and often have future career plans that include instructing the next generation of legal professionals.
- P.A. The P.A. designation usually appears after the name of a law firm. It stands for professional association and indicates that the lawyer has formed a specific entity to run the law firm. This strategy helps reduce the lawyer’s personal liability associated with the firm. The P.A. means that the signature applies to the business, not to the lawyer specifically.
- J.D. J.D. stands for Juris Doctor and indicates that an attorney has graduated from law school. A J.D. is a graduate-level degree, and an attorney must hold this degree to practice law within the United States.
- LL.B. Legum Baccalaureus, or LL.B., is a foreign title that meets the same basic requirements as a J.D. in the United States. A lawyer who obtained their initial degree outside the United States, or who practices law in another country, may use this designation to indicate the successful completion of their schoolwork. Typically, lawyers and legal graduates outside the United States do not use the term esquire to identify themselves, since it indicates a noble rank in Europe.