Attorneys are required to make sure they use professional designations that are not false or misleading. Unfortunately, opinions about proper professional designation vary.
Generally, the initials “J.D.”, short for Juris Doctorate, mean only that one has graduated from a law school. Many folks properly use the initials when they have not passed a bar examination. If you see “JD” behind someone’s name, don’t assume the person is a licensed attorney. Look for a statement that tells you where the attorney is licensed, if anywhere.
One would think that the “Esquire” (Esq.) designation would be reserved only for attorneys who have a license. Not true. A duly licensed attorney can opt to put Esq. behind his or her name, but doing so isn’t required in most states. Some licensed attorneys observe the historical use of Esquire and use it as a form of address for other attorneys, in much the same way they would use “the Honorable” when referring to a member of Congress. Some states believe that licensed attorneys should refer to themselves as Esquire, to alert the recipient of correspondence that the recipient is dealing with a licensed attorney. New York City’s bar association even draws a distinction between the proper uses of Esquire and “attorney at law,” finding that an attorney employed in a non-legal capacity by a nonprofit organization can use the Esquire but cannot say “attorney at law.”
Most states agree that a non-practicing, non-licensed law school graduate cannot use the term “esquire” because it almost uniformly signals that the person using the designation is properly licensed. In the case of law students, law school graduates, non-practicing attorneys, and attorneys on inactive status, using Esquire behind the name is not allowed. For me, I drop the JD and my MHS unless I am running around in academic circles. I use “esquire” because I care more about observing the profession’s rules about proper communication than I do about adhering to stodgy rules about forms of address.
Bottom Line – If you only see the letters “JD” after someone’s name, don’t assume he or she has a license to practice law. Check to make sure.