When it comes to the legal field, knowing what various terms mean and how they’re used can be overwhelming—especially if you don’t work in the field. At Esquire Law Firm, we’re here to put your mind at ease. Our attorneys have the education, training, and experience required to navigate complex cases and walk clients through them every step of the way. This includes understandably explaining things and defining confusing terms when necessary.
One term that causes some confusion in the legal field is “esquire.” The meaning and use of esquire (abbreviated to esq.) have developed over time and across cultures. If you’ve ever wondered what esquire means and how to use it correctly, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about this unique yet peculiar term.
The Historical Etymology of the Term “Esquire”
To better understand the modern meaning and usage of a term, it’s important to first understand its origins. Here’s a brief history lesson of the term esquire, including where it originated and how its meaning and use have evolved.
The noun esquire dates back to the late 14th century. Its earliest form appeared in the Old French language with the term “escuier,” meaning shield-bearer. A shield-bearer was a young man in training to become a knight. “Escuier” was used to differentiate between the shield-bearers—who were freemen—and shield-makers—who were slaves.
Another early form of esquire was the term “scutarius,” meaning shield-bearer or guardsman in Medieval Latin or shield-maker in classical Latin. This term originates from the term “scutum,” which simply means shield. “Scutarius” described young men who assisted knights in putting on their armor for battle and other purposes.
After “escuier” and “scutarius” came “squire.” This term originally denoted someone who was ranked higher than a gentleman but lower than a knight. During the 16th century, the meaning of “squire” broadened to refer to the general title of courtesy or respect bestowed upon individuals in the educated and professional class. In other words, “squire” was reserved for society’s notability class.
The final form of these historical terms culminated in the modern-day “esquire.” Historically in the US, “esquire” referred broadly to lawyers, sheriffs, sergeants, and justices of the peace—rather than people of nobility. Today, however, the term is used exclusively for lawyers. Its use in the US peaked during the 19th century and has gradually declined ever since.
How Is “Esquire” Used in the Legal Profession?
Esquire is used exclusively in the legal profession to refer to licensed attorneys. The term is typically shortened to Esq. and appears after an attorney’s name. For example, John Smith would become John Smith, Esq. Attorneys generally don’t use the term esquire to refer to themselves. Rather, someone communicating with an attorney may address them with the title esquire in various correspondence.
Esquire is used primarily in formal written communication, as opposed to verbal communication. It may appear on letterhead, in an email signature, in online job profiles, or on the signature line of legal documents. Esquire is simply a formal way to address a licensed attorney. It’s a sign of respect for professionals who have taken the time to complete law school and pass the bar exam.
Can Anyone Use the Title “Esquire?”
If you plan to use the term esquire when communicating with an attorney, be sure to use it in the right way and the correct context. Take a few minutes to brush up on the etiquette of using esquire in the legal profession.
Esquire is a title that refers to someone who is legally authorized to practice law, meaning that the individual completed law school and passed the bar exam. Those who completed law school but have not passed the bar exam cannot include the term esquire in their official title.
Here are the three criteria one must meet to use the term esquire after their name:
- You must pass the LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
- You must attend and graduate from an accredited law school
- You must pass your state’s bar exam
The term esquire is not exclusive to any particular type of law or type of attorney. It can even be used by retired attorneys who no longer practice law. There is one caveat, though. While retired attorneys can keep esquire in their title, they cannot use the term in a way that deceives potential clients into thinking they’re still practicing attorneys. In this case, esquire simply communicates one’s educational and professional experience in the field of law.
“Esquire” vs. “Attorney”: Understanding the Difference
While the term esquire is used to describe someone who is a licensed, practicing attorney, the two terms are not interchangeable. Esquire isn’t a substitute for the term attorney but rather a sign of respect that’s designated for attorneys.
“Esquire” and “attorney” aren’t the only terms that have similar yet distinct meanings. Did you know that “attorney” and “lawyer” don’t technically mean the same thing? It’s true. A lawyer is someone who completed law school, thus earning their J.D. An attorney, on the other hand, is someone who earned their J.D. and passed a state bar exam. Attorneys are licensed by the state in which they passed the bar exam to practice law and represent clients in court.
Attorneys can use the term esquire in their title, whereas lawyers cannot. It’s like the classic square versus rectangle argument. Just as every square is a rectangle but not every rectangle is a square, every attorney is a lawyer but not every lawyer is an attorney. Despite the technical differences between these two terms, they’re often used interchangeably in the U.S.
What Other Terms Are Used in the U.S. to Refer to Legal Professionals?
There are a handful of terms besides esquire that are used in the US to refer to individuals who work in various legal professions. Here’s a breakdown of the most common ones.
- Attorney and attorney-at-law: Both terms refer to someone who graduated from an accredited law school, passed the bar exam, and is licensed by the State Bar Association to practice law in their respective state
- J.D. (Juris Doctor): A J.D. is the degree that every law school graduate earns upon completing all course requirements.
- Master of Laws (LL.M.): Someone who already graduated from law school but wishes to specialize in one specific area of law can complete an additional one- to two-year program known as a Master of Laws.
- SJD or JSD (Doctor of Juridical Science): An SJD or JSD is the highest level of a law degree that one can attain. This degree is often held by licensed lawyers who pursued a job teaching law in a professional setting. It’s the equivalent of earning a Ph.D. in law.
- Master of Legal Studies (MLS): Those who want to study law but don’t want to attend law school can complete a Master of Legal Studies. MLS graduates are not licensed attorneys. Professionals working in law enforcement, business, and regulatory agencies often pursue this degree.
Contact Esquire Law for Answers to Complex Legal Issues
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