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Debate over ‘doctor of law’ title continues

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Debate over ‘doctor of law’ title continues

Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

Reversing an earlier decision, the Bar Board of Governors has said it is alright for a lawyer who has a juris doctor degree to say in a Spanish-language ad that he is a “doctor en leyes,” or doctor of laws.

But board members said they consider their action a narrow one applying only to the facts of that case. Some board members said they might vote differently if the ad was in English.

The board, after approving the ad, asked the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics, which reviews advertising appeals, to research whether a broader policy is needed and to get input from law schools on what law degrees they confer and any differences regarding the nature of those degrees.

The board acted at its June 2 meeting in Key West. The matter had been tabled from April. (See story in the May 15 Bar News. )

Steve Chaykin, chair of the BRC, said the issue came to the board after the Standing Committee on Advertising recommended that the board reverse a previous decision denying an attorney permission to use “doctor en leyes” in an ad. The BRC, he added, objected to the SCA decision and recommended that the board stand by its earlier position.

Since that previous decision, the advertising committee has reviewed other cases, Chaykin said, and ruled that lawyers could use doctor of laws in ads if that term actually appeared on their law degree (as it does on the certificates from some law schools). It also, in one case, said that three partners in a law firm could use the phrase in an ad, even though the diploma of one awarded a juris doctor instead of doctor of laws.

“References to lawyers’ education in advertising must be limited to the actual degree awarded,” Chaykin said. “The committee [BRC] sees the lawyer as trying to hold himself out as having additional qualifications than just being a lawyer.”

But others disagreed, noting it is common in Hispanic culture to refer to a lawyer as “doctor.”

“In the Hispanic community, people are used to calling their lawyers as doctors,” said board member Ervin Gonzalez. “In the Hispanic community to say I have a doctor in laws is not misleading. Juris doctor is a study of laws. What’s the difference?”

Bar President-elect Designate Frank Angones agreed.

“If you come from a Spanish-speaking community, doctor is the normal way of addressing [a lawyer],” he said.

Angones likened the issue to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, adding, “I don’t think that doctor, if you are saying it in Spanish, is misleading.”

But board member Carl Schwait said the Bar’s advertising rules have to regulate the entire state, and affect English as well as Spanish-language ads. He was also concerned when the term is used in ads seeking medical malpractice clients.

“They’re saying, ‘Come to me, I’m a doctor and I will represent you when you sue your local hospital,’” Schwait said. “No one is saying, ‘I’m a doctor, come to me and I’ll write your will.’”

“This is misleading and, if you allow this, lawyers across the entire state. . . will have the opportunity to call themselves doctors in law,” board member Gary Leppla added. “The rest of us will say, ‘Why are they representing themselves as something greater than our degree?’”

Other board members noted the LL.M. degree is higher than a juris doctor, but is commonly referred to as a masters of law, yet someone with a J.D. could use the title of doctor of laws which implies more learning than an LL.M.

President-elect Hank Coxe posed the question, “If I were a member of the Hispanic community and I saw this ad, what would I believe?”

“You would believe this person was a lawyer with a degree from a law school,” Gonzalez replied.

“Would I be misled?” Coxe asked.

“Not at all,” Gonzalez said.

The board rejected the BRC’s recommendation by a 16-23 vote. It then, by voice vote, rescinded its earlier disapproval of the ad.

Chaykin noted the BRC had a further recommendation — that ads should reflect the language on lawyers’ diplomas.

“I think that unless it’s on your degree, doctor of laws should be reserved for those who have an S.J.D.,” he said.

Some board members also said they had concerns about whether their action constituted a broad approval to use “doctor of laws” in lawyer ads and whether using the term in English ads was alright.

Board member Ben Kuehne said he saw the board’s action as narrow and only applying to the specifics of the case. Angones agreed, saying the board was addressing whether doctor of laws was deceptive, and that can have a cultural aspect.

“I did not think that this was broad enough that it would allow me to advertise a doctor of laws in English, because that’s not culturally what this society is used to,” he said. “However, if you’re talking about a particular [Hispanic] market, I don’t see that as deceptive.”

The board voted to direct the committee to contact law schools for input on how holders of their degrees should represent themselves.

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