Ethics Opinion 1969-5

October 16, 1969



Attorney received the degree of Juris Doctor by an accredited College of Law. What is the propriety of using the initials "J.D." or the title "Doctor" or both, in business and social circumstances?


While this Opinion was in process, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association adopted the new Code of Professional Responsibility.

The adoption of the Code virtually renders moot any controversy in this area for it permits attorneys to use "an earned degree or title derived therefor indicated his training in the law."

It is the opinion of the Committee that there is no impropriety in using the initials J.D. after the name of an attorney holding that degree or the use of the title "Doctor" or both in business or social contacts. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This change does not apply in the State of California as the use of degree or title is prohibited by Rule 2-103, California Rules of Professional Conduct, 2-23-76).


In Formal Opinion 183 decided May 10, 1938, the A.B.A. Committee on Professional Ethics held that it would be improper for a lawyer to place upon his professional letterhead any degree conferred upon him because it would serve no purpose other than to advertise the qualification of the lawyer. The A.B.A. Committee, however, was dealing with an attorney-physician who wished to place both LL.B and M.D. on his stationery, not merely the initials LL.B.

In Informal Opinion No. 1001, the A.B.A. Committee held that it was improper for an attorney to use the initials "J.D." either orally or in print for any purpose.

The A.B.A. Committee apparently recognizes that Formal Opinion 183 must be updated as it applies to the use of the J.D. degree. This recognition appears in Formal Opinion 321 issued March 1, 1969, 31 years after Opinion 183.

In Formal Opinion 321, issued March 1, 1969, the A.B.A. Committee has held that the use of the J.D. is proper, and the use of the title "Doctor" is proper in reputable law lists, on academic occasions and in academic circles when in accordance with the customs of the school and when dealing with lawyers and others abroad in countries in which lawyers are referred to as "Doctor". The A.B.A. Committee also stated:

"Until the time comes when the J.D. degree is the universal degree for the initial study of law (as the M.D. degree is in medicine) we can see no reason to permit the professional use of this degree, so as to distinguish its holder as compared with others who hold a different degree."


In Case & Comment, November-December, 1966, it is noted at Page 24 that:

"The J.D. is the professional doctorate of law. It is to the law school graduate what the M.D. is to the medical school graduate, or the D.D.S. is to the dental school graduate. The J.D., M.D. and D.D.S. degrees are professional doctorates. Among the informed, these strictly professional doctorates are not confused with research doctorates--Ph.D., S.J.D., Ed.D., etc. The J.D. differs from the LL.B degree in that it is the oldest known professional degree."

In 12 Clay, Mar.L. 573 (1963), it is stated that:

"The nature of basic professional degrees is that they carry no implication of original research qualification, nor of creation of a substantial addition to existing knowledge. The research degrees, on the other hand, are those which require advanced study in a particular area of knowledge, usually evidenced by a dissertation that makes a substantial contribution to existing knowledge.

". . . once this system, or hierarchy, of degrees is understood, many seeming conflicts are resolved.

". . . so long as one ignores the fact that there are two kinds of doctorates--professional and research--and so long as the standards in which the first professional degree must be compared is the Ph.D., no professional degree can be a doctorate. However, this does not correspond with reality, as the M.D. and D.D.S. would be excluded . . . Only when we free our minds from the erroneous notion that all doctorates must be the same can we proceed . . ."

"Today, the academic degree is essentially a shorthand way of signifying that the owner has completed a specific course of study of an educational institution."


It is clear that an attorney should not indicate upon his letterhead any specialty. For an attorney-physician to place the letters M.D. upon his stationery would be to indicate a specialty, i.e., medicine.

For an attorney to write "J.D." after his name is essentially a shorthand way of signifying that he is an attorney.

Prior to all attorneys having been required to attend and graduate from a law school, it is conceivable that to place the initials of an academic degree after one's name would indicate a qualification not possessed by other attorneys. Today, this does not apply.

It appears that when substantially all attorneys possess the J.D. degree, the A.B.A. Committee will not oppose its use. It should be noted that 85% of the nation's law schools have adopted the J.D. (A.B.A. Newsletter, June, 1969.) This in turn means that the A.B.A. Committee, by its own reasoning, will approve the use of the initials after an attorney's name and the use of the title "Doctor" within the foreseeable future.

The adoption of the new Code of Professional Responsibility virtually renders moot any controversy in this area.

This opinion is advisory only. It is not binding upon the State Bar, the Board of Governors, its agents or employees.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The use of degrees or titles is still prohibited in California; however, the State Bar of California has issued proposed amendments to the Rules of Professional Conduct which involve advertising. If the amendments are approved by the Supreme Court, this opinion may be superseded.


Disclaimer: This opinion was issued by the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association. It is advisory only and is not binding upon any member of the SDCBA, any other member of the State Bar of California, the State Bar of California or its Board of Governors, or any persons or tribunals charged with regulatory responsibilities. The SDCBA, its officers, directors, agents, and the Legal Ethics Committee members assume no responsibility or liability in rendering this opinion.