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Ethics Opinions from the Bar Association of San Francisco

INFORMAL OPINION 1973-7

An attorney with a J.D. degree who is also a licensed dentist may (a) be introduced to legal clients as "doctor," (b) leave a message that "Doctor X phoned," and (c) display his dentistry diploma in his law office.

QUESTION:
A lawyer engaged in the private practice of law, with a J.D. degree, who is also a licensed dentist and sees dental patients of other dentists at their offices on a part-time basis has asked the following questions:

  1. Is it unethical to be introduced to legal clients as "Doctor"?
  2. Is it unethical to call a legal client and leave a message that "Doctor X" called?
  3. Is it unethical to display his dentistry degree in his law office?

OPINION:

The answer to each question is "no".

Use of the title "Doctor" is authorized by the Code of Professional Responsibility of the American Bar Association by virtue of Disciplinary Rule 2-102(F), which provides:

"Nothing contained herein shall prohibit a lawyer from using or permitting the use, in connection with his name, of an earned degree or title derived therefrom indicating his training in the law."

Informal Opinion No. 1151, February 1970, confirmed that Disciplinary Rule 2-102(F) authorized the use of the letters J.D. on an attorney's letterhead and use of the title "Doctor".

While the Code of Professional Responsibility of the American Bar Association has not been adopted in California, Rule I of the California Rules of Professional Conduct states in part that:

"The specification in these rules of certain conduct as unprofessional is not to be interpreted as an approval of conduct not specifically mentioned. In that connection the Code of Professional Responsibility of the American Bar Association should be noted by members of the State Bar."

The California State Bar has not yet taken any position with respect to the use of the title "Doctor" by lawyers who possess a J.D. degree. The Board of Governors referred this matter to the Special Committee re Review of the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility in 1970 and this Committee has not yet rendered its report. The Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego Bar Association, however, in Informal Opinion No. 9 has ruled that use of the title "Doctor" for lawyers who have earned a J.D. degree is proper. For a full discussion of the problem, see Peck, The Right of California Lawyers to Use Academic Degrees: A Juris Doctor's Dilemma, 46 Cal.State Bar J., 189 (1971).

This Committee concludes, in accord with the San Diego Bar Association, therefore, that use of the title "Doctor" by a lawyer who has earned a J.D. degree is proper. This conclusion is reached without relying on the fact that the inquiring lawyer is also a dentist who could use the title "Doctor" by reason of his dentistry degree.

With respect to the third question concerning the display in his law office of a degree in dentistry, the Committee concludes that this is not improper. Consideration has been given to Rule 2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the California State Bar, which precludes the solicitation of professional employment and limits the signs a lawyer may display, but it does not appear applicable in the instant situation where the display of the dentistry degree within the office would not appear to be a solicitation of professional employment as a lawyer.

A lawyer engaged in a second profession must recognize, however, that he remains subject to all of the ethical rules of the legal profession. He should also note that Disciplinary Rule 2-102(E) provides:

"A lawyer who is engaged both in the practice of law and another profession or business shall not so indicate on his letterhead, office sign, or professional card, nor shall he identify himself as a lawyer in any publication in connection with the other profession or business."

All opinions of the Committee are subject to the following disclaimer:
Opinions rendered by the Ethics Committee are an uncompensated service of The Bar Association of San Francisco. Opinions are advisory only, and no liability whatsoever is assumed by the Committee or The Bar Association of San Francisco in rendering such opinions, and the opinions are relied upon at the risk of the user thereof. Opinions of the Committee are not binding in any manner upon the State Bar of California, the Board of Governors, any disciplinary committee, The Bar Association of San Francisco, or the individual members of the Ethics Committee.

In using these opinions you should be aware that subsequent judicial opinions and revised rules of professional conduct may have dealt with the areas covered by these ethics opinions.

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