Mark McCown: Attorney can be noble, but can’t be nobility

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 31, 2021

Dear Lawyer Mark: I’ve got a question for you that deals with lawyers, but not really the law.
I’m sending you this letter my cousin got from a law firm in Columbus after she had a wreck.
See where it says “Attorneys and Counselors at Law” at the top?
I thought they were the same thing, so my question is, what is the difference, and why even say that it is “at law”?
Also, how come the lawyer has “Esquire” after his name?
I thought we didn’t have titles of nobility in the United States. — PUZZLED IN CHESAPEAKE
Dear Puzzled: The answers to all of your questions lie in the European roots of our legal system. The word “attorney” comes from the Old French word “atorné”, which means “one appointed,” or a person who stands in as a substitute for another.
An attorney speaks on behalf his client in court, and therefore stands in as his client’s substitute.
We use the phrase “Attorney at Law” to distinguish a practicing lawyer from other attorneys, such as an “attorney in fact” who is designated to act for somebody in business or health transactions through a power of attorney.
The phrase “Counselor at Law” is similar but more generic – it refers to a person being able to advise his client as to legal rights and ramifications, based upon the person’s knowledge and experience with the law.
In the United States, we lawyers often list both the attorney and counselor titles to showcase the different roles we have with each client, but in other countries the two can be different licenses.
For instance, in England, “solicitors” can advise their clients as to the law and represent them in some of the minor courts, but if a person wants someone to stand in for him at the Supreme court level, he must hire a “barrister.”
You are correct that the United States does not grant titles of nobility, as it is prohibited by Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution.
The word “esquire” has its roots as a title of dignity; it was the position above that of a gentleman but below that of a knight in England.
Over time, however, other persons received it as a title by virtue of holding an office rather than being a member of a certain class.
Sheriffs, sergeants, and barristers, among others, were given the title for their positions.
Thus, in the United States, “esquire” is a title of position rather than nobility, such as doctor, judge, governor, councilman, etc.
The only difference is that attorneys place the title after their names rather than before it.
An attorney might be noble, but in the United States he is not a member of any nobility.

Thought for the Week: “Nobility, without virtue, is a fine setting without a gem.” — Jane Porter.

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown in response to legal questions received by him. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Avenue, Ironton, Ohio 45638, or e-mail it to him at The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.

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