Biglaw, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: T-Bone, Esq.

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

Let’s get one thing straight here. It’s a universal law: You can’t give yourself a nickname. Only someone else can give you a nickname, and it has to happen pretty much organically. There’s nothing more pathetic than someone trying to force their own nickname on you.

I once had a prospective client whose name was “Tony Calabrese” (only it wasn’t; this is another pseudonym), but who told me to call him “T.C.” In fact he told me several times, mainly because I ignored him. Did he think I was going to have trouble saying his name? Neither his first name nor his last name was difficult to pronounce. You know the saying “the client is always right”? Well, you can forget about it when the client tells you to use a silly nickname. I didn’t take the case, because I couldn’t take him seriously.

The T.C. wannabe obviously liked the idea of being a nickname kind of guy. He thought it made him seem cool and hip. Like “Top Cat.” But this T.C. was no Top Cat. He was a software salesman. In contrast, Top Cat was the indisputable leader of the gang. The boss. The pip. The championship. (What the hell does that even mean?) But even in Top Cat’s case, only his “intellectual close friends get to call him T.C., providing it’s with dignity.”

So bequeathing yourself a nickname makes it look like you’re trying too hard. And yet small-firm lawyers do it all the time.…

Because too many small-firm lawyers go about slapping “Esq.” after their names. They put it on business cards, email signatures (right above the stupid disclaimer), websites, and résumés. They think it makes them look cool and hip. Like lawyers. Only it doesn’t.

Because “Esquire” is an honorific. In other words, it is used to convey “esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person,” as the Wikipedians put it. You really can’t convey esteem or respect when addressing or referring to yourself, or at least you shouldn’t.

Yes, I understand that you want the world to know you’re a lawyer. (Because that will really get you some esteem and respect.) But putting on airs and “Esquires” to get that message across shows a real lack of confidence that the world will figure it out all on their own. Your résumé or business letter should make it obvious that you’re a lawyer. You can always put “Attorney” or “Lawyer” or even “Law Stylist” on your business card. But don’t call yourself “Esquire.” You can’t honorific yourself.

It’s like calling yourself “Mister.” It’s just not done. (Exception: If you’re a hotel guest, it’s acceptable: “Yes, Housekeeping? This is Mr. Shepherd in Room 327. I need ten extra bath towels and a large ball of twine, quick as you can. Thanks.”)

Similarly, you should never announce yourself on the phone as “Attorney So-and-So.” First and last name will do, but don’t wave the “attorney” title around. You sound like a jackass. If the person on the phone doesn’t know who you are, you can always explain by saying “I represent Mr. Such-and-Such.”

Biglaw lawyers are less likely to make this faux pas. Why is that? Partly because they feel that their firm name will it make it clear that they’re attorneys, and partly because large law firms have marketing departments that know better than to let lawyers add their own “Esquires.”

By the way, some people (mostly men) wonder whether “Esquire,” which was originally a British term for a gentleman, can be appropriately used when addressing a female lawyer. The correct answer is of course it can, you idiot.

Also, when you’re addressing a lawyer in a letter or on an envelope, you write, “Jane Doe, Esq.” or “John Doe, Esq.” You do not also include the Ms. or Mr., which would be superfluous.

But the most important thing to remember is that you can’t call yourself “Esq.,” just like you can’t call yourself “T-Bone”:

GEORGE: Well, Jerry, I been thinkin’. I’ve gotten as far as I can go with George Costanza.

JERRY: Is this the suicide talk or the nickname talk?

GEORGE: The nickname. George. What is that? It’s nothing. It’s got no snap, no zip. I need a nickname that makes people light up.

JERRY: You mean like … Liza!

GEORGE: But I was thinking … T-Bone.

JERRY: But there’s no “t” in your name. What about G-Bone?

GEORGE: There’s no G-Bone.

JERRY: There’s a g-spot.

GEORGE: That’s a myth.

[This is from the Seinfeld episode “The Maid,” one of the all-time classics (synopsis here, copyright-violating transcript here). This is also the episode with Koko the money, Coco the maid, Elaine’s fax machine, and the nexus of the universe.]


Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also founded Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at js@shepherdlawgroup.com.

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