Five things you should know before using the “Esquire” suffix

You’ve probably seen the Esquire suffix (“Esq.”) attached to an attorney’s name before. If you’re a lawyer, perhaps you include “Esq.” on your letterhead or other correspondence that leaves your office. Or, maybe your experience with the suffix “Esquire” just conjures up this guy:

William "Bill" S. Preston, Esq. - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq. – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Whatever the case may be, today we’re going to talk about 5 things you need to know with regard to using the suffix. Pay careful attention if you plan on using it, as even folks in the legal community tend to get confused about how the suffix ought be applied.

(1) – Where did the word “Esquire” come from?

Let’s briefly touch on the word’s origin. The reason we should will become apparent in later points, as we discover that “Esq.” was never really intended for lawyers.

Esquire is derived from Latin scutarius, meaning “shield bearer”. The word originally denoted two classes in the Roman caste system. Those who made shields were slave workers, whereas those who bore them were freemen. Under Roman law, the shield bearers were freemen with the right to bear arms and the shield makers were slaves without such liberty.

In the Middle Ages, scutarius gave rise to the French word esquier. The French word esquier, like the Latin scutarius, carried a designation within a class system at the time: noble or ignoble. During French feudalism, esquiers represented the function of not only being a warrior’s assistant, but also a specific rank or degree–young noblemen who, in anticipation of their own knighthood, acted as attendants to knights. For example, an esquier would generally be the shield bearer for his father until such a time came as he reached manhood and could join his father as his equal. Around 1060, England took up a similar feudal system.

Skipping forward in time, the English usage of the word “Esquire” came to mean a title of dignity just above “gentleman” and below “knight”. It was also a title given to sheriffs, sergeants, barristers at law, justices of the peace and others. Hence, over time, the title became applied to others than just those of noble birth.

(2) – If “Esquire” historically refers to those of noble birth, isn’t such a title prohibited by the U.S. Constitution?

Short answer: No, because that’s not how we use or understand it in the U.S.

Longer answer: Read on.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and states from granting titles of nobility. The titles of nobility anticipated by the Constitution are likely akin to those provided in Black’s Law Dictionary, “Nobility. In English law, a division of the people, comprehending dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons. These had anciently duties annexed to their respective honors. They are created either by writ, i.e., by royal summons to attend the house of peers, or by letters patent, i.e., by royal grant of any dignity and degree of peerage; and they enjoy many privileges, exclusive of their senatorial capacity.”

The way we use the title “Esquire” in the United States has rendered it almost entirely bereft of any articulable meaning (more on this later). However, one thing it certainly does not connote in the U.S. is nobility. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, “Esquire” doesn’t even serve that function in modern day England.

Interestingly enough, there are still some extremists out there who want to keep lawyers out of public office based on the fact that they are commonly referred to as “Esquire”.

(3) – Why do people in the United States associate a suffix of “Esq.” with attorneys?

No one really knows for sure, so I’m going to speculate based on facts we can use.

We know that over the years English usage of “Esquire” transformed from an assign reserved for nobility to a title of dignity. As such, “Esquire” seemingly lost its ability to identify someone’s social rank or particular function. Instead, the word became a mere courtesy more aptly given as a polite reference to gentlemen. To wit, a British justice of the peace would be properly referenced as “Esquire” while in commission, as would a Barrister-at-law (British advocates in court).

We also know that by the time of the American Revolution, the English usage of the term “Esquire” was in practice in the colonies. It became customary to append the title to attorneys at law in addressing them by letter. Given that we share a common legal heritage with England, chances are that we simply kept with the custom.

Yet, unless you’re looking at a modern North American dictionary, you are not going to find Esquire defined as associated with the practice of law or the legal profession in any sense. Any secondary meaning associating the title with attorneys was provided by the U.S. If you decide to visit another country, do not assume any connection between the word and the legal industry.

(4) – Is “Esquire” gender-specific?

Yes. At least by definition, the title “Esquire” has always referred to men. Although true that in the 21st century it is not uncommon to see use of the title extended to female attorneys, this is not technically proper.

(5) – How do I use “Esq.” properly?

As we’ve already discussed how the suffix may be properly applied to non-attorneys, I am going to limit the scope of this discussion to its most common usage in the United States–between attorneys.

As a general rule, the cardinal sin of using “Esq.” is to assign it to yourself. Esquire is a title of honor or dignity, meaning it is a bit presumptuous to slap onto your letterhead. For example, if I introduce myself as “Tristan C. Robinson, esquire”, that would be kind of like a judge stating that they are the Honorable Judge Smith, or referring to themselves as “My Honor”.

What’s perfectly acceptable practice is using the “Esq.” suffix to honor another attorney with the assign. So, if I’m writing to Attorney Rick James, there’s nothing wrong with my letter addressing him as “Rick James, Esq.”

In sum, it’s OK to honor others with “Esq.”, but Esquire-ing yourself is simply pretentious. Moreover, referring to yourself as Esquire is going to come off as ignorant to those who understand how it’s meant to be used.

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