Only playing doctor?
July 12, 2007 6:34 PM   Subscribe

Particularly in the state of Pennsylvania, is it technically legal for someone who has earned a JD to use the title of doctor/Dr. professionally?

The law sayeth:

§ 422.10. Unauthorized practice of medicine and surgery

No person other than a medical doctor shall engage in any of the following conduct except as authorized or exempted in this act:

(1) Practice medicine and surgery.
(2) Purport to practice medicine and surgery.
(3) Hold forth as authorized to practice medicine and surgery through use of a title, including, but not necessarily limited to, medical doctor, doctor of medicine, doctor of medicine and surgery, doctor of a designated disease, physician, physician of a designated disease, or any abbreviation for the foregoing.
(4) Otherwise hold forth as authorized to practice medicine and surgery.

My friend the almost-lawyer says that this doesn't make it illegal. I tend to think that he's correct (only partly since he is in law school and I am not), but I was interested in hearing what some of you thought. I think that part 3 could possibly be interpreted as making it illegal, if "doctor" or "Dr." would be considered an abbreviation of the other titles, and the use of an abbreviation of a certain title would be considered by default as claiming to be authorized to practice medicine. However, one would think that the law would have clarified this point in particular if that were the case. Maybe.

If your state has a similar law, and you know how it's dealt with there, that could be equally interesting.
posted by Gingersnap to Law & Government (25 answers total)
Yes. My dad went to Dickinson Law School, and as I recall, he occassionally used the title
posted by DudeAsInCool at 6:37 PM on July 12, 2007

IANAL, and IANYL, but:

I would be shocked if this was illegal. J.D. stands for juris doctorate. If the rapper Dr. Dre can call himself Dr., why not a lawyer?

Socially, of course, this would be a tremendous faux pas (just on the off-chance you know someone actually considering this).
posted by ewiar at 6:38 PM on July 12, 2007

*juris doctor
posted by ewiar at 6:38 PM on July 12, 2007

is it technically legal for someone who has earned a JD to use the title of doctor/Dr. professionally?

It wouldn't make sense for Pennsylvania law to prohibit J.D.s from referring to themselves as "Dr."

Under the stringent interpretation of the statute that would prohibit such usage, Ph.D. professors would not be able to introduce themselves at the beginning of the semester with, "Hi, I'm Dr. So-and-So," without being in violation of the statute.
posted by jayder at 6:40 PM on July 12, 2007

IANAL; IANA(M)D. But (3) doesn't seem to apply here; "Dr." doesn't always refer to MDs, after all - else, what would we call people with PhDs? (That said, there are doctorates whose recipients tend not to refer to themselves as "Dr. Jones" - AudD would be one such example.) Having a doctorate does make you a doctor, it's just that MDs and PhDs tend to be the ones we commonly refer to as such.

For that matter, if the PA legislature had meant "you can't use the title doctor if you're not an MD", I would imagine they'd've written (3) to say that, without specifying, "medical doctor, doctor of medicine", etc.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 6:42 PM on July 12, 2007

Is this a hypothetical? If not, are you sure (s)he isn't a JD/PhD? Calling yourself "Dr." with just a law degree is... wow, just crass.
posted by mkultra at 6:46 PM on July 12, 2007

Plenty of people call themselves "doctor," quite correctly and legally, without having a license to practice medicine. I took computer science courses, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, from a fellow called Doctor Aronis. Note the first part of (3):

"Hold forth as authorized to practice medicine and surgery through use of a title..."

Not "use a title such as Doctor," but "hold forth as authorized by using a title."
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:46 PM on July 12, 2007

Optometrists use the title "Dr."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:48 PM on July 12, 2007

IAAL in Illinois. I am allowed to call myself "Dr." and this standard was recently written up in one of the ABA (American Bar Association) publications as acceptable but not advisable.

I don't call myself Dr. but I do use JD and Esq. periodicaly.

Some don't know this, but while it is perfectly legal to use Esq. if one is not an attorney, to use it after one has earned a JD but before one has passed the bar can lead to violations of character and fitness and thus lead to disbarrment or denial of bar admission depending on when it's discovered.
posted by MeetMegan at 6:58 PM on July 12, 2007

This is discussed at reasonable length in a Wikipedia entry:
Legal profession
In some countries, the United States in particular, the title of the first professional degree in law is called "Juris Doctor". This is a post-baccalaureate first professional degree program in law which has chosen to use the title of "doctor" in the name of its degree. Some lawyers claim therefore that the title of the degree confers upon them the right to be called with the title "doctor".

In the United States, practising lawyers are typically called "Mr." or "Ms./Mrs./Miss", regardless of whether they possess a Juris Doctor degree or not. This is a convention of the courts, of litigation and of the legal profession generally. The title Counselor is often used in courtrooms in the United States. A Judge or Justice in the United States is addressed as Judge followed by his or her surname outside the court room. In the court room, he or she is addressed as "your honor." Practicing lawyers usually are not addressed as "Doctor." An exception is when a lawyer with a doctoral degree is a witness in a proceeding, in which case that person may be addressed "Doctor" in the witness box.


It is interesting to note than in the ABA Journal, November 2006, an article titled "Lawyers Are Doctors, Too"addresses the question of whether or not an attorney in the United States can call him/herself Doctor. In essence ABA Informal Opinion 1152 (1970) allows those who hold a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Masters in Law (LL.M.) to use the title doctor. See also ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility, Disciplinary Rule 2-102(E). Under prior ethical rules, the use of the title doctor was prohibited as being self-laudation. Some states prohibit attorneys from using the title doctor without clarification since it might mislead the public into thinking the attorney is a health professional. In all states attorneys must avoid using the title doctor in a manner that might mislead the public, such as advertising where a medical malpractice attorney uses "Doctor" in a manner which could cause the public to believe the attorney is a medical professional with relevant medical experience.
Contrast the ABA rulings with this ethics opinion from the San Diego Bar Association: "it is the writer's opinion that a lawyer in San Diego may not ethically use the term Doctor in reference to himself." This is mainly because the use of academic titles, etc, is "self-laudatory" and unbecoming.
posted by robcorr at 7:01 PM on July 12, 2007

Technically and academically speaking, a JD is not allowed to call himself or herself a Dr. The Juris Doctor is an Americanization of the European Juris Doctorae -- a diminutive of the doctorate and just considered slightly above a bachelors, but below a Master’s degree as it does not require original contribution of knowledge. An LLM is equivalent to a Master’s degree and a JPD is equivalent to a PhD and is allowed to be referred to as Dr. for academic recognition. While Americans often equate a MD with the title Dr., the academic usage of the term Dr. predates the medical connotation by many centuries. So within academic circles JDs are strongly discouraged from using the title Dr.
posted by Tolerant at 7:10 PM on July 12, 2007

... letting someone who has a Masters in Law use the title doctor is /really/ stretching it. I have a master's, and nobody calls ME doctor! (Or even Master!)
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:30 PM on July 12, 2007

the academic usage of the term Dr. predates the medical connotation by many centuries

I always thought there were 3 original doctors: Medical, Theological, and Philosophical, with none predating the others. I could be wrong, however.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:50 PM on July 12, 2007

legal? oh that is funny. call yourself whatever you want (Dr. Frank Fields)
posted by caddis at 7:57 PM on July 12, 2007

IAAL, and while TINLA, honestly, if a state law prohibited people with JDs or PhDs or GEDs or what-have-you from calling themselves "doctor," it'd be unconstitutional. Look back at that Pennsylvania statute -- it's actually fairly specific that what you can't do is claim you're authorized to practice medicine. All of the forms of "doctor" it says you can't call yourself are specifically medical. Your friend can't say, "I"m a doctor; let me perform that appendectomy for you!" but it's not a general prohibition on using the word "doctor."
posted by grimmelm at 9:55 PM on July 12, 2007

IAAD. Early in my training I was taught that it is preferable to be referred to in writing as [firstname] [lastname], MD and not Dr. [Firstname] [Lastname]. The reason for this convention, I was told, was that "anyone can call themselves 'Doctor'".
posted by scblackman at 4:35 AM on July 13, 2007

You might find it interesting to know that in other common law countries, a law degree is considered an undergraduate degree (somewhat paradoxically, as I'm pretty sure everywhere except Australia you need at least a bachelor's degree before you can go to law school). I stated out law school as a J.D. candidate in the States, but transferred to a school in Canada and got an L.L.B. -- the same degree with a different title. It is my understanding that a law degree used to be "L.L.B." in the States too, and you can probably still find some older lawyers using that designation.

Really, a law degree isn't equivalent to a doctorate: it's only three years, and there's no thesis involved. That said, scblackman is right - anyone can call themselves "doctor," lawyers included.
posted by AV at 5:37 AM on July 13, 2007

In the US, generally only physicians call themselves "Dr. X". In other countries everybody with a Ph.D. calls themselves Dr. X. I once made a small error when I was house swapping with a couple in London. He was an MD/PhD and she was a PhD in Art History. I got a call for Dr. M, and assumed it was for him. It turns out that it was for her, and the caller was somewhat miffed. She assumed that I didn't think a woman could be a doctor. So, knowing the local rules makes a difference.

(Actually, a very good friend of my friend does a lecture in Esperanto on how to talk dirty in Esperanto, and he calls himself Dr. X. But that's different, I suppose.)
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 6:02 AM on July 13, 2007

In Canada and the UK you don't need a degree prior to starting a law degree. In the UK you can start straight from h.s.. In Quebec you can start straight from Cegep (pretty common) and in the rest of Canada, after two years of undergrad (pretty rare).
posted by Salamandrous at 6:24 AM on July 13, 2007

vilcxjo, I beg to differ. Ph.D.s in the US most definitely refer to each other as "Dr." - but not in casual situations, only in the most formal circumstances. Perhaps this is where your impression comes from?

I have a Ph.D. and I'd never introduce myself as Dr. Quietgal unless I was deliberately being an arrogant asshole. My impression of physicians, however, is that they are trying to establish their expertise/superiority when they introduce themselves to patients (when a particularly arrogant MD rubbed me the wrong way I said "Hello, I'm Dr. Quietgal!")

However, when introducing speakers at a scientific conference, for example, it's quite usual to refer to them as "Dr. X".

posted by Quietgal at 7:43 AM on July 13, 2007

Lawyers shouldn't use "Esq." when referring to themselves, either.
posted by jcwagner at 8:26 AM on July 13, 2007

vilcxjo, as quietgal mentions PhDs are called Dr. in the US. I'd say it's even more common than she lets on, but it all depends on the circumstance. I honestly can't imagine calling an MD a doctor any more often than I'd call a PhD a doctor--both only and always in their respective professional contexts. I think of it as taking the place of "Mr" or "Mrs" while they're at work. I wouldn't call my neighbor "Dr." whether an MD or a PhD.
posted by monkeymadness at 11:48 AM on July 13, 2007

In Sense and Sensibility (published 1811) the two medical practitioners are referred to as 'Mr Donovan' and 'Mr Harris' while 'Dr Davies' who is commonly referred to as 'the Doctor' is actually a clergyman.
posted by happyturtle at 2:46 PM on July 13, 2007

In Sense and Sensibility (published 1811) the two medical practitioners are referred to as 'Mr Donovan' and 'Mr Harris' while 'Dr Davies' who is commonly referred to as 'the Doctor' is actually a clergyman.

A historian-friend of mine told me that, prior to physicians earning medical "doctorates," there was a similar debate as to whether physicians should be able to call themselves "doctor." (Similar, I mean, to this discussion about whether attorneys should be able to call themselves "doctor.") My friend's point was that calling a physician "doctor" was, at first, widely regarded as questionable, but as a result of physicians being awarded M.D.'s, the use of "doctor" for physicians met with eventual acceptance and became customary.

It's my understanding, as well, that doctoral degrees were often awarded without a thesis, and were largely honorary in earlier centuries. For example, Samuel Johnson was called "Dr. Johnson," but he never completed a doctoral program ... I believe the LL.D. degree was awarded to him by Oxford as an honor occasioned by his independent literary achievements.
posted by jayder at 5:31 PM on July 17, 2007

I believe the LL.D. degree was awarded to him by Oxford as an honor occasioned by his independent literary achievements.

And, by the way, he never even finished his B.A.
posted by jayder at 5:32 PM on July 17, 2007

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