Word of the Week: Esquire

Each week we select a legal term or phrase that’s commonly misunderstood, interesting, or pretentiously tossed about. This weeks word is the latter.

The term esquire, or Esq. as it is commonly abbreviated, has evolved considerably over its six centuries of existence, and today is one of the many relics of the British colonization of North America. Interestingly, although the eventual colonial break from mother England symbolized a growing distaste for tyrannical kings and unearned titles, our newly emancipated forefathers still had a taste for a hint of occupational hierarchy. Those early American patriots, many of them lawyers themselves, soon found a way to turn a gentleman’s birthright into a source of professional pride.

The words origins date back to the high Middle Ages, where young country gentlemen known as squires served as assistants to Englands knights. In those days, the term literally meant shield bearer, and was therefore descriptive of the duties the position entailed. Later, the term would be used in Britain to denote a man of gentle birth, which could range in definition from noble relations to wealthy landowners, and was generally added after the surname to show the status of the individual. However, the evolution of the term didn’t end there. In time, a name like William S. Preston, Esq. not only denoted a man of the gentry, but specifically a member of the upper gentry, and not to be confused with the (ahem) lower gentry.

Unfortunately for the real members of that class, however, ambitious men of lower social statuses soon realized that practically anyone could add an Esq. and hold themselves out to be a member of the upper class. Over time, as the title was absorbed by the common folk, its prestige dwindled, and although the title is still used in the United Kingdom today there is essentially no distinction between the use of Mr. and the use of Esquire.

After the Revolutionary War, the term underwent a major revision in the colonies as well. As a result of years of taxation without representation by a monarchy hundreds of miles away, colonial Americans were more than a little tired of honorific titles and social status based on nothing more than birthright. In fact, our forefathers went so far as to create Article I section 9(8) of the United States Constitution, which proclaimed in no uncertain terms that No title of nobility shall be granted in the newly formed United States. So, on this side of the pond, the meaning of esquire, which still carried with it an air of prestige, shifted from a mark denoting social status to one of occupation, and was quickly adopted by the legal profession. In its first incarnation, the term included sheriffs, justices of the peace, and notaries public, although that too would change in next 150 years.

In the United States today, esquire is used almost solely as a postnominal honorific for the noble profession of attorneys at law. And in a twist that would make our British gents of yesteryear cringe, a purely American phenomenon has evolved allowing even women to hold the Esq. title.

Although the use of the term has become less restricted and formalized since its creation, a few basic rules of courtesy still apply.

First, esquire is never used with any prenominal form of address, like Mr. or Ms. Second, it is never used to refer to oneself, but instead is used when introducing a third person in a formal setting, or when addressing a letter.

Never assume that the addition of Esq. to someones name in the United States is proof that the individual has passed the bar and is a licensed attorney. Like those social climbing gentlemen of England, there are those in the United States that will take advantage of a gullible client and attempt to practice law without a license. Always make sure that your legal advisers are Bar-certified, and, as a point of class, beware of those who introduce themselves as an esquire!

A word to the wise for current law students and recent graduates: note that you are not yet entitled to esquire status. A current or graduating law student will receive a J.D., or Juris Doctor, but in order to earn the esquire title, passage of the bar is required. If you choose to esquire yourself too early, your peers and potential employers will at best think you have little understanding of the title, and, at worst, think you are pretentious. Think of it this way: after four years in undergrad and three years in law school, wheres the harm in waiting a few more months?