Ethics Opinion 1974-10

April 22, 1974



May an attorney professionally or socially use the designation "J.D." or "Doctor" on letterhead and cards?


In San Diego this practice is not permitted because San Diego is a jurisdiction which has not adopted the Code of Professional Ethics.


During the 12th Century in Bologna, the term "Doctor" was reserved for legal scholars. The term means "teacher" in Latin and signified an advanced education in the teaching capacity. Approximately 200 years later, the term was adopted by the medical profession and other professions. In the guild system, the European scholar advanced through three states: (1) Bachelor, (2) Lisentiate, and (3) Master or Doctor. The European professionals' use of the term "Doctor" therefore, is deeply embedded in the culture.

Unlike the institutionalized legal education in Europe, Colonial America had no law schools. Probably America's first law school was established by Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary during the Revolutionary War. Until approximately 1850, many if not most American lawyers, became licensed without any formal education. They clerked for lawyers, listened to their elders, read the statutes and digests, and after many years were recommended by a committee to become licensed. Because there was no formal training in an established institution nor the conferring of degrees, Americans did not use the term "Doctor" in reference to lawyers. Since 1870, however, legal training has become increasingly competitive. Today one must have 84 to 90 post-baccalaureate hours to receive a J.D. degree. A Master of Law degree calls for 110 to 120 post-baccalaureate hours. Comparing this to the 60 hours of academic instruction plus a written dissertation, required for a Doctor of Philosophy degree, one must agree that the legal degrees are at least comparable. [This background information is taken from Don't Call Me Doctor, by William Shields, 55 A.B.A.J. 960 (1960).]


Both Rule 2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of California and Canon 27 of the American Bar Association proscribe the solicitation of professional employment.


In Formal Opinion No. 183 (May 10, 1938), the Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances of the American Bar Association held that it is improper for a lawyer to place upon his letterhead any degree conferred upon him. The Committee's rationale was that the information with respect to degrees could serve no purpose other than to advertise the qualifications of the lawyer.

In Formal Opinion No. 321, the Committee's holding was consistent with that in Formal Opinion No. 183.


In Informal Opinion No. 1001 (October 16, 1967), the Committee held that a lawyer may not ethically use the designation J.D., or "Doctor" on his letterhead or otherwise socially. The Committee reasoned that Canon 27 specifically prohibits all forms of self-laudation including any activity which tends to emphasize the importance of a lawyer. The Committee found that the social or professional use of the designation "Doctor" or "J.D." whether orally or in writing, would constitute a form of self-laudation which the Canon prohibits.

In Informal Opinion No. 896, the Committee ruled that all that may appear in a lawyer's letterhead is his name, and indication that he is a lawyer, his address and phone number. Academic degrees may not be included.

In Informal Opinion No. 1151 (February 25, 1970), the Committee held that a lawyer may use the term "J.D." or "Doctor" on his letterhead, cards, on the signature line of all correspondence, or verbally, provided the lawyer's jurisdiction has adopted the A.B.A.'s Code of Professional Responsibility with DR 2-102(f) intact. DR 2-102(f) is a provision in the Code which specifically authorizes the use of all titles or degrees which indicate the lawyer's training in the law. Informal Opinion No. 1151 further stated that if the Code has not been adopted in the lawyer's jurisdiction, then a contrary result would be reached by way of Canon 27.

Informal Opinion No. 1152 (February 25, 1970) held that an attorney with a LL.M degree may use the term "Doctor" socially or professionally, as an LL.M degree is more advanced than a J.D. degree. Again, a contrary result is reached if the Code has not been adopted in the jurisdiction in question.

In Informal Opinion No. 1247 (October 18, 1972) the Committee held that a lawyer may use one or more titles or degrees, socially or professionally, as long as they indicate the lawyer's training in the law. A title or degree which does not indicate training in the law may not ethically be used.


Since California has not adopted the A.B.A.'s Code of Professional Responsibility with DR 2-102(f) intact, it is the writer's opinion that a lawyer in San Diego may not ethically use the term Doctor in reference to himself.

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Opinion was reviewed August 6, 1976 and found to be valid with the following modifications:

California Rule 2 as it pertains to solicitation of professional employment has been superseded by Rule 2-102.

The State Bar of California has issued proposed amendments of the Rules involving advertising; however, it appears that although approval by the Supreme Court would allow wider dissemination of information regarding degrees held, that such information may still not appear on professional cards, signs and letterheads.


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.