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Should lawyers call themselves doctors of law?

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Should lawyers call themselves doctors of law?


Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

“My mother always wanted me to be a doctor,” mused Bar Board of Governors member David Rothman.

The question before the board at its April 7 meeting in Coral Gables was whether the holder of a juris doctor degree could call himself or herself a “doctor of law” in an advertisement.

The board wound up tabling that issue as it considered a variety of advertising matters, including the permissibility of using illustrations of hands in handcuffs in lawyer ads.

The doctor issue came from a 5-1 vote by the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics to uphold the Standing Committee on Advertising opinion that it was impermissible for a lawyer to say, in Spanish, in his ad that he had a “doctor in law.” Several board members noted that in Hispanic countries it is common to refer to lawyers as doctors in law.

BRC Chair Steve Chaykin said the committee felt it was misleading to use the term, unless that was the phrasing used on the lawyer’s diploma. But others disagreed, noting it was a cultural issue for many of the state’s residents.

“I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal,” Rothman said. “We’re splitting a hair that probably doesn’t exist.”

Board member Ervin Gonzalez noted that in Spanish-speaking countries it is customary to refer to attorneys as doctors in law, and common for clients to refer to their attorney as “doctor.”

“I think we’re cutting it a little too thin for me,” he said.

However, board member Jesse Diner said there are differences between a J.D., a master of laws, and a J.S.D. degree, which is a true doctor in law. “I think it does mislead,” he said.

Board member Gary Leppla said beyond the cultural issues he was concerned with how the language could be used. “If it’s okay to say in your advertising ‘doctor in law,’ advertising lawyers will run with that and imply they are more than J.D.s,” he said.

The board voted to table the issue on the suggestion of board member Clif McClelland.

“There are distinctions here between the various [legal] degrees and it might be better if the Bar is going to reverse this policy that we come back with a more well-defined recommendation,” he said.

The issue on illustrations of hands in handcuffs came as a request for clarification from the Standing Committee on Advertising. That panel noted that the board previously had declined to appeal to the Supreme Court a grievance referee’s decision that such an illustration did not violate the Bar’s ad rules. The Supreme Court final order in the case followed the referee’s finding.

“The matter before the standing committee is whether they should treat the board’s decision [not to appeal] in that particular case as binding,” Chaykin said. “The BRC voted 6-0 to recommend that the Board of Governors vote to answer the standing committee that no, the decision not to appeal the referee’s opinion in that case is not binding on the standing committee’s review of other ads with hands in handcuffs.”

He added that the BRC now thinks it was a mistake for the board not to appeal that decision.

Some board members questioned whether the board could overturn what might be seen as a court precedent, but others agreed with the BRC and voted, with some dissents, to approve its recommendation.

On a related issue, the board approved the BRC’s recommendation not to answer the advertising panel’s questions about whether illustrations of hands in handcuffs violate Bar ad rules. Instead, the board referred that back to the standing committee to make its own determination, since the board would review any appeal of the committee’s decision.

The board also approved three BRC recommendations overturning Standing Committee on Advertising findings.

One involved the standing committee’s recommendation that a law firm’s Internet Web site domain name created an unjustified expectation in violation of the ad rules. The board disagreed and ratified the BRC’s 4-2 vote that the name, youraccidentrecovery.com, did not violate the rules.

The second involved a tag line used in the same law firm’s print and television advertising, which advised, “It’s about you, your health, your family, and your recovery.” The BRC and board agreed that also did not create an unjustified expectation.

On the last ad appeal, the board agreed with the BRC that the statement, “The lawyer you choose can help make a difference between a substantial award and a meager settlement” also did not create an unjustified expectation.

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