There’s no shortage of reasons to doubt Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Full stop. Her use of the title “doctor” in the 1990s isn’t noteworthy among them, however, especially given her whimsical understanding of certain crucially important aspects of American history. You know, like slavery. Last week, Mother Jones magazine nonetheless set its editorial sights on this one of Bachmann’s many foibles. Declaring that “Michele Bachmann is not a Doctor,” Tim Murphy at Mother Jones argued that she was not entitled to refer to herself as “Dr. Michele Bachmann” while working as an education policy advocate earlier in her career, despite holding a J.D. at the time. In Murphy’s view, only a Ph.D. or an M.D. entitles a person to call themselves “doctor.”
Murphy is absolutely right about one thing. Professionally and customarily, lawyers in the United States aren’t doctors. Lawyers are sometimes “esquires,” but only in writing, and only when it’s appropriate to indicate having a license to practice. But there’s a risk in using the title: it’s pompous, just like wearing a bow-tie unless you’re at a black-tie event or were born in the southern United States prior to 1950 (or in some other such place at some other such time). Used well, “esquire” should translate to “I have a license to practice law, and, in my professional judgment, estimate the utility of that knowledge to you to be worth the personal humiliation of seeming to pretend to be an 18th century gentleman.” Used poorly, “esquire” instead translates to “I’m a lawyer–surprise! I bet you had absolutely no idea.” Among surprises, that’s not a good one to make. Lawyers holding a J.D. in civil law countries like Italy–where the J.D. originated in the eleventh century at the University of Bologna–do go by “doctor” professionally, as in dottore avvocato (“doctor advocate”). But that hasn’t been the professional custom in the United States.
Academically, it’s more nuanced. Murphy’s indignation stemmed from his sense of who is and isn’t generally entitled to take the title “doctor.” In the United States, however, there’s no uniform rule. The title “doctor” isn’t a creature of law, but rather of custom and/or self-regulation. Each discipline and institution that grants doctoral degrees independently regulates the use of the title. As Murphy belatedly acknowledged, the American Bar Association and bar associations of many states seem to encourage that lawyers holding a J.D. don the title in some circumstances, though perhaps not when interacting with clients.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how the academic work of earning a J.D. compares quantitatively and qualitatively to that of its counterparts in medicine, as well as in the sciences and humanities. But if a lawyer finds him/herself in an academic setting–for example, as a professor or a scholar at a conference–then it means s/he has conducted and published research beyond the basic requirements of a J.D.
Even in academic settings, however, lawyers still probably shouldn’t–as a matter of personal choice–adopt the title themselves. Lawyers are already “esquire” when they earn their licenses, “professor” when they join law faculties, and “the honorable” when they become judges. That’s enough for one discipline, and certainly so given the legal profession’s public relations problems. Moreover, not even many Ph.D. holders refer to themselves as “doctor.” Meanwhile, calling someone else “doctor” as a discretionary sign of respect, so long as that person holds a doctorate, should be absolutely noncontroversial.
So, Murphy’s case against Bachmann for calling herself “doctor” while working as an education advocate rings hollow. But I shouldn’t care since I’m no fan of hers, right? Here’s why I do: Erroneously attacking Bachmann for what she called herself as an education advocate distracts from what she actually said as an education advocate. It’s the substance that matters. A presidential candidate’s general professional judgment certainly does deserve scrutiny, but attacks against the same need to be serious and thoughtful to merit public attention. Bachmann’s use of “doctor” might’ve been a social gaffe, but it’s not the moral catastrophe Murphy seemed to think.
As a footnote, Murphy might’ve also compared Bachmann with another leading Tea Party figure. Orly Taitz, who describes herself as the “world’s leading” advocate of the emphatically discredited view that President Obama was born abroad, adopts both “doctor” and “esquire”–as in “Dr. Orly Taitz Esquire,” with “Esquire” written breathlessly in full and without a comma, as if it were just another last name. Dr. Taitz is not only a lawyer, however, but also a dentist, so she probably would’ve passed by Murphy unscathed, at least this week.