Gradually lawyers wormed their way into the proceedings in court.
To His Royal Mattjesty: PhDs, MDs, ODs, DCs, etc., are all customarily referred to as "Doctor." Why aren't JDs? After all, a D is a D, isn’t if? — David A. Pomerantz, MA, BA, AS, soon to be JD & Esq., San Diego
Well, if I say that a JD is the same as a PhD in astrophysics or comparative literature, I’ll probably be ambushed by some irate grad student wielding his blood- and sweat-stained thesis. But in fact all doctorates are created equal when it comes to the etiquette of academic titles. If you really, really want to refer to yourself as Dr. Pomerantz, Attorney at Law, your Doctor of Jurisprudence degree gives you permission. And history is also on your side. The first doctoral degrees awarded by a university were in law, and it was traditional to refer to these graduates as “doctor.” But since we’re not back in 13th-century France or Italy, you’ll just have to ignore the snickers from your colleagues, I guess.
“Doctor” originally just meant “teacher.” The first doctors (also called “masters”) were itinerant tutors, public lecturers, and teachers of religion. It was an honorific awarded more or less by consensus (or by papal dispensation in some cases) before the university system began to gel in the early days of the Renaissance. After that, a doctor gradually became someone with a specialized knowledge of one particular discipline, and the terms “doctor” and “master” designated a certain level of academic achievement. Early on, this applied to the law as well as science and the arts.
But way before the university system evolved, even before the days of ancient Rome, lawyers were considered “helpers” or “assistants” or “advisors” to their clients; it was the client’s responsibility to plead his own case. (The Greeks more or less perfected the idea of the lawsuit, but the Romans spawned today’s lawyer.) These advocates learned their profession in an apprentice system. Gradually lawyers wormed their way into the proceedings in court and in daily business until, especially in the British system, there was a sort of hierarchy of duties and titles established, all of them based more on the practice of law than the academic study of law. And in many cases the practitioner still learned his craft as an apprentice, not as a university student anyway. In the earliest days of the U.S., the relative newness of a true American law and a lack of law books and schools made it rare for a lawyer to be university educated. In most of the West, all you had to do to practice iaw was be at least 21 years old. Lay judges were common in the U.S., even into the 20th Century. So whatever pretensions today’s law professionals may have inherited, academic titles are not among them. This may be reinforced by the fact that virtually every law school graduate receives a doctoral degree, and that includes the schnook in the next office who barely squeaked by the bar exam on the fifth try, so professionally there’s no cachet in being Dr. Pomerantz, Attorney at Law. Even attorneys who earn doctoral degrees beyond the level of JD eschew the use of the title “doctor.” Longtime professional tradition, apparently. As for the unconscionably stuffy “Esquire” often affixed to attorneys’ names, in British tradition, a squire was an untitled man who served as a shield-bearer and protector to a knight, thus a handy label to use to elevate yourself above the common masses without offending the blue bloods.