To Be, or Not to Be, a Doctor?

By Lorena Rivas

The direct Latin translation of the words juris doctorate is a doctor of law. Thus, it would not be completely inappropriate if an attorney was referred to as a doctor. However, most attorneys in the United States would probably shrug such a title off. After all, we didn’t complete residency and only had to go to law school for three years after our bachelor’s degree. I used to think the same. 

The first time I was called a doctor was from a female client of mine from Peru. She had been the victim of domestic abuse and had been abandoned by her abusive U.S. citizen husband. She came to me because she had been served with divorce papers in the hotel room she was staying in with her young daughter. She did not know what to do. She was lost and in fear for her future. She begged me, “Doctora, por favor ayudame. Doctor, please help me.” 

In many countries of Latin America, an attorney is commonly referred to as a doctor — a wise doctor who knows how to navigate the complex legal system and fully advocate for them. The wise internet states that this respectful reverence derives from the 12th century when an individual was first awarded a doctor’s degree in civil law in Italy. This was two centuries before a doctor’s degree was awarded in medicine.  

The case of my Peruvian client was a complex one — a divorce and an immigration case. We were not sure if we would prevail, but we did. The moment my client received the assurance that she and her daughter would be able to remain in the U.S., with some funds from the divorce settlement, was a truly blissful day for both her and me. While she wasn’t suffering from a physical ailment when she first arrived at my office, she certainly was suffering from an emotional ailment. 

Since then, I’ve had many more clients from Latin America refer to me as doctora, each with their own story of angst and need for help. While I still wonder if I am worthy of being called a doctor, the client’s smile and sense of peace confirms that we, as attorneys, do have some type of healing powers, and there is no harm in being called such a name from time to time. 

Ms. Rivas practices in Tulsa.

1. See Milard King Roper Jr., “Ethics: Information Opinion 1151 — Lawyers and the Title “Doctor,” 6 Akron Law Review 83 (1973).



Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 160 (Jan. 21, 2017)

Webcast encores are available for OBA/CLE seminars. View the catalog and sign up today.