Esquire & Other Honorifics

-originally published in the Sudbury District Law Association February 2014 newsletter-


Somehow, somewhen, around these parts, the use of the title ‘Esquire’ in written communications about or to lawyers has near vanished. I used to experience a little pick-me-up when I would get a letter, however perfunctory, that was addressed to “T. Michael Hennessy, Esq.” And this was a common event. In the early years of my law office work, end of the 70’s and into the 80’s, perhaps half or more, of the correspondence I received used this style of address. Most of these letters of course came from other law firms. And in like manner our office staff routinely addressed letters to other lawyers adding Esq. to the names of recipients.

Allow me to confess that for a number of years I had no idea about what this suffix to my name meant, or what its origins were. I surmised, somewhat correctly, that it had something to do with being a lawyer. When I first looked into it, I learned the following.

First there were no federal, provincial, or regulatory rules on the use of the honorific. In other words, it was simply a convention or practice with historical antecedents. Canada it seems carried the tradition from Great Britain. There, for many generations barristers were recognized by the form of title Esquire. Interestingly solicitors were not similarly treated.

The origins of the title are a little mushy. Some ranked the title above that of a mere Gentleman and below that of a Knight. In addition to Barristers a number of other groups, were able to use the title including Justices of the Peace.

In Canada, or more particularly Upper Canada, those learned in the law were both Barrister and Solicitor, and the use of Esquire became commonplace for all lawyers.

The practice also found its way to the United States, where it seems to have become more entrenched and pervasive. Indeed, in one court case it was held that the use of Esquire by a non-lawyer was held to be some evidence of the unauthourized practice of law. For those who are gender conscious, it is noteworthy that there is a published NY State Bar Association opinion(1955) that the use of Esquire for female lawyers was quite acceptable.

Lower Canada, now Quebec, with its strong connections to France, and the French language, took a different path. There, lawyers were addressed by the honorific Maitre. This convention is much stickier than the Esquire convention for Anglos in Ontario. Consider for instance the recent obituary of a Sudbury raised lawyer, who practiced in Hawksbury. The title of the obit was “Maitre Roger Lapalme”.

With the honorific Esq., by common convention, a certain etiquette emerged as to its appropriate use. One such feature was that a lawyer not invoke the pseudo title self referentially in correspondence. As in don’t be signing your name I.M. Lawyer, Esq.  It is appropriate though to use it on professional cards.

Conversely, it was considered good mannered to refer to others in the profession with this title, in the salutation of a letter.

With the apparent loss of the use of the term among lawyers themselves in these parts, I feel a sense of loss. But there is good news. A new title has revealed itself to me that may assuage my damaged self esteem.

Give credit to the Senate of York University and the management at Osgoode Hall Law School. A few years back they voted to allow a change to the name of my law degree. Bachelor of Laws was still OK, but if I wanted, for a small fee, they would change the degree name to Juris Doctor, and issue me a new sheet of faux parchment.

I bought in. I figured $85 was a cheap price to pay to become a doctor.

So now that I have the degree framed and on my wall, the question naturally arose, might I legitimately identify myself in correspondence, or professional cards, as Doctor Hennessy, or its abbreviation Dr. Hennessy.

After some modest research, I now hold the view that indeed I may use this honorific. The only proviso being that I not give the appearance of holding myself out as a medical doctor. The issue has been considered a number of times by regulatory bodies in the U.S. with mixed results, but most recently with approval. As far as I know no Canadian authority has addressed the question.

So my current inclination is to follow the past protocols related to Esquire, and allow others to address me by this title, but not to sign with it myself. So, if it isn’t too much of an inconvenience, the next time you correspond with me, give it a whirl and address that letter to Dr. Michael Hennessy.


T.M. Hennessy, J.D.
Principal history source: Wikipedia and pieces noted there.