Legal professionals do not really have a uniform convention about titles and honorifics. Sometimes, attorneys use the title of esquire to refer to themselves and other lawyers, and I wrote an article a few years ago about some of the situations when lawyers should and should not employ this honorific. I received dozens of emails in response to that article, several of which conveyed various titles that lawyers often call other legal professionals in various parts of the country. In my experience, the term “counselor” is a great honorific to use when referring to other lawyers, and more attorneys should employ this title when referring to others within the legal profession.
The first time someone called me counselor was when I was in law school. Of course, the person using the term was just joking when he referred to me using this honorific since I was not yet a lawyer, but I kind of liked how this title sounded. Counselor seems like a friendly term that might be considered less pretentious than esquire, which might sound antiquated to some.
Moreover, counselor is preferable to esquire and other honorifics because it is far more descriptive about what attorneys actually do. In response to my prior article, several people emailed me with rationales behind why lawyers sometimes call each other and themselves esquire. Some said that it was because a squire apparently helped a knight in olden times, just like lawyers help clients in the present. This seems pretty attenuated and confusing.
However, an attorney is someone who provides counsel and guidance to clients. As a result, it is much more descriptive to refer to a lawyer as counselor than esquire and other similar titles. In addition, in some states, the official title of legal professionals describes them as being counselors. For instance, under New York law, lawyers are called “attorneys and counselors-at-law.” As such, in the Empire State and other locations that have similar titles, referring to a legal professional as counselor is just a descriptive way to refer to a lawyer.
Using this descriptive honorific can have a number of positive benefits in legal practice. For one, calling other lawyers counselor can increase congeniality among attorneys. As legal professionals are abundantly aware, lawyering is often an adversarial profession. Whether attorneys represent clients in litigation or transactional matters, lawyers often need to butt heads in order to promote their clients’ interests.
However, attorneys usually need to have rapport and compromise in order to achieve the best outcomes for their clients. The vast majority of lawsuits settle without ever being resolved by a jury, and transactional matters often require give and take that is much easier if attorneys get along. Calling adversaries and other lawyers with whom you interact counselor can go a long way toward de-escalating issues and building a rapport among attorneys. Most lawyers appreciate being called this honorific, and when this title is being used, it usually conveys that the person saying the honorific isn’t a jerk even though they may need to be adversarial against another lawyer. As a result, calling attorneys counselor and extending other courtesies can go a long way toward helping attorneys achieve the most success possible for their clients.
Calling other attorneys counselor also goes a long way toward increasing the profile of the legal profession. As mentioned in a prior article, I recently watched all the episodes of the Australian legal show Rake, and even though the practices and procedures in Australia are different from the United States, the show is still very interesting. The show depicts lawyers calling each other their “friend” or “sister” or “brother” in court, purportedly to demonstrate how the legal industry is a dignified profession and people will be given baseline courtesies because they too practice law. I know in certain parts of the country it is common to use similar phrases in court, but in New York and New Jersey, I rarely see this. Frankly, it seems kind of weird to call another lawyer “brother” or “sister” even though they too are members of the bar (and one of my brothers is actually my law partner!). However, calling attorneys counselor is an easy, gender-neutral way to add more dignity to practicing law.
More judges can also call attorneys counselor in the courtroom. It is always appreciated when judges use this title when referring to lawyers, since it shows that respect goes both ways in a courtroom. Judges almost always practiced law before ascending to the bench, and they should understand the struggles that lawyers face when dealing with clients and earning a living. Judges can recognize the tribulations of attorneys by calling them a title rather than Ms. or Mr. so and so. Many judges do call lawyers counselor, but other judges do not use this honorific. However, judges can improve the profile of the legal profession and perhaps even advance decorum in the courtroom by using this title to describe attorneys who appear before them.
Of course, there are many practical reasons for using the term counselor. Sometimes in court, it can be difficult to tell who an attorney is and who is an assistant, witness, or other participant of litigation. Using the word counselor makes it clear who the attorney is on a team. In any case, using the term counselor benefits attorneys, and more lawyers should use this honorific when referring to other attorneys.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].