Restrictions of the Retired: Adjusting your title on letterheads and return addresses

by epi on August 16, 2012

Q: I am a retired attorney in good standing, but as a retired attorney I cannot practice law.  When can I use “attorney” or “attorney at law”?  Would it be ethical?  Can I still use “attorney at law” on my letterhead?  Can I use it on my return address?  Can I sign my name with Esquire after the name?  After all, once a retire Navy captain, always a captain.

A: Strictly speaking, it’s not an etiquette faux pas to use the word “attorney” or the phrase “attorney at law” on your letterhead.  However, by doing so you run the risk that people will think you are still practicing and they might solicit you for work.  The same would be true on your return address.  Because you indicate you cannot practice law anymore, you should consult your state’s ethics rules.  The use of Esquire or Esq. after your name is acceptable.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie August 16, 2012 at 4:50 am

I’m an attorney and I have to say, the best advice in this answer is to “consult your state’s ethics rules.” Because etiquette aside, unless you remain licensed and admitted to your state bar, you probably do not want to hold yourself out as an “attorney” or an “attorney at law.” Look for ethics opinions that interpret Model Rule 7.1 and its equivalent in your state. Recent law graduates, those with suspended licenses, or those who let their bar membership lapse or who become inactive–these people are likely not permitted to use these designations. I’d definitely check ethics opinions for your situation to make sure you don’t run afoul.

As for the esquire thing, when I was in law school, I was taught that using Esq. after your own name is a faux pas. “Esquire” (which is sort of like calling someone “noble gentleman” although it is used in a gender neutral manner these days) is an honorific you bestow on fellow attorneys as a sign of polite respect, but it’s not something that you use to refer to yourself. Some attorneys do tack it on, but because most of us are in the know, these folks look either self-important or like they’re making a gaffe. It’s like if a judge introduced HIMSELF as “I am the Honorable So and So.” You don’t declare yourself “honorable” or a “noble gentleman.” For it to have meaning, somebody else has to call you that. And I think I recall from a hypo in MPRE-prep that using Esq. can be seen to connote that you’re licensed to practice, so using it might also theoretically run afoul of the same ethical rules I mentioned above.

You could certainly append a “J.D.” after your name. And the model rule is all about not misleading anyone so you might also consider incorporating some form of “attorney at law/retired” into your letterhead.


Winifred Rosenburg August 16, 2012 at 9:26 am

This is probably a stupid question: why does he have business letterhead if he’s retired?


Chocobo August 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I agree. I think the question is moot. If he is retired, there is no need for business letterhead that lists his profession. The letterhead should simply display his monogram or full name and home address, if desired.


Jerry August 16, 2012 at 10:16 am

There is no way a licensed attorney — let alone an attorney old enough to be retired — would contact an etiquette blog about this issue! Legal ethics and etiquette are completely different things!

I think EPI got trolled here.


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