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Bar board settles Dr. of Law debate

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Bar board settles Dr. of Law debate

Descriptions of law degrees in advertising are limited to the language on the diploma, with no translations

Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

Changing the action it took in early June, the Bar Board of Governors decided that lawyers who want to describe their law degrees in advertising are limited to using the language on their diplomas, with no translations.

The board acted at its July 28 meeting in Orlando on a matter that it has considered at its previous three meetings. But the decision wasn’t final until after the board voted to reconsider its decision and then rejected an alternative proposal.

The issue came to the board originally in an advertising appeal from a lawyer who wished to say in a Spanish-language ad that he had a “doctor en leyes,” or doctor of laws degree. Many Hispanics traditionally refer to their lawyers with the courtesy title of “doctor.”

The Standing Committee on Advertising originally determined that the language was impermissible, then after further review asked the board to reconsider the board’s earlier finding that the language was impermissible.

After extensive discussions at its June meeting, the board voted that the ad was permissible, but said it applied only to the narrow facts of that case and might not apply to an English-language ad. It also asked the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics (BRC) to survey what verbiage various law schools use on their diplomas, since some do refer to their degree as a doctor of laws instead of a juris doctor and to make a recommendation to the board on the use of terms such as “Doctor of Law.”

At the July meeting, BRC Chair Larry Ringers said the committee proposed a “bright line that you use the actual language from the degree that you received from your law school and anything else would be misleading.”

Allowing any leeway “would be a futile exercise because we won’t be able to predict what creative lawyers want to put in their ads. However, with the bright line rule, we won’t ever be tasked with that,” he added.

Supporters of the proposal said they were concerned that lawyers could mislead the public if they use other terms to describe their law degrees, particularly if the word doctor was used in ads seeking medical malpractice clients.

“It is wrong to use doctor of laws,” board member Jake Schickel said. “The title you get with your degree is in play; everything else is out. The bright line should be you got what you got, nothing else.”

& #x201c;It’s a slippery slope,” board member Jesse Diner said. “If you just lay out what your degree is, you can’t mislead anybody. Beyond that, I don’t know where it stops.”

In response to a question, Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert said under the bright line policy, lawyers would not be able to translate their degree into another language. She noted that juris doctor is Latin and lawyers don’t translate that into English. Ringers added the BRC was concerned that translations would open the door to ambiguous language.

Board member Larry Sellers, a member of the BRC, cast the only dissenting vote on the committee. While agreeing with allowing the language on the diploma in ads, he argued against the total ban on any alternative, including translations. He said the board could take that up when ads using alternative language were submitted.

Board member Ben Kuehne agreed, saying the proposed action would not allow someone with a juris doctor to say he or she had a doctor of jurisprudence degree. He also questioned the ban on translations.

“This may need a little more study,” Kuehne said. “I think the committee recommendation does not go far enough and needs more work.”

The board voted 25-20 to approve the BRC recommendation.

But the issue wasn’t completely settled as later in the meeting board member Mayanne Downs moved to reconsider the action. She proposed an alternative that would ease the ban on translations.

“The suggestion is that any lawyer in an advertisement could use his or her degree name or any reasonable translation thereof, as long as it is not misleading,” Downs said. The Bar could then consider exceptions case-by-case, she said.

The board initially voted 20-17 to reconsider its earlier vote, but after debate rejected Downs’ alternative 23-17.

“What’s reasonable? There’s no guideline for what’s reasonable,” board member Hal Melville said.

Added board member Dominic Caparello, “You have no idea how long we can debate what is reasonable or not. We are going to be here determining what’s reasonable month after month.”

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