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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 26, 2016

I graduated from a U.S. law school but have not taken a bar exam yet. Can I call myself a lawyer?

Julie Q. Brush

You hit the books, made it through law school and walked the stage, but there’s one more milestone still left to cross…the bar exam. So in the interim, what are you? Can you call yourself an honest to goodness lawyer?

To begin, let’s state the potentially obvious: In the U.S., if you have not passed a state bar exam you are prohibited from engaging in the practice of law (a definition which is nuanced from jurisdiction to jurisdiction). So in order to cross your T’s and dot your I’s, review this important definition in the state you reside. In addition, not only can you not practice law, you may not hold yourself out as a professional who can engage in the practice of law – even if you are working in a non-legal profession, as doing so could trigger legal ethics violations. So calling yourself a “lawyer” to others or listing your J.D. degree on websites/marketing materials/social media without a disclaimer that you have not yet passed a state bar exam could get you into hot water. Even casual contexts can run afoul of the current ABA technicalities involving this issue. So given the risks, I recommend that you refrain from using this title altogether.

You did not ask, but you also may not use the title of “attorney” when referring to yourself in any context without having passed a state bar exam. While the two monikers (lawyer and attorney) have be used interchangeably from a practical perspective, the ability to call oneself an “attorney” follows more strictly defined rules whereas “lawyer” can be a bit more fuzzy. An attorney is designated as an individual who has attended law school, earned a J.D., passed a bar exam and has been admitted to practice law in a specific jurisdiction. This professional is licensed to represent clients in a court of law – and can invoke the attorney-client privilege. So in your circumstance, without having passed a state bar exam and earning your license to practice law, you are strictly prohibited from using this designation.

So then what’s a newbie to call him/herself?

Below are a few message tracks that you can use when describing who and what you are professionally at this stage of your career. They are not elegant, nor will they roll off your tongue. But they accurately…and safely describe your current designation in this legal profession’s no-man’s-land:

  • I have recently earned my law degree/J.D., and am not yet licensed to practice law until I pass the bar exam.
  • I am in the process of becoming an attorney and recently finished law school.
  • I just graduated from law school and am waiting to take the bar exam.
  • I am a [add profession here. i.e. nurse, architect, police officer] with a law degree.
  • I have my J.D. and am waiting to become a licensed attorney.
  • At the moment, I have a J.D. but am not licensed to practice law until I’ve passed the bar exam.
  • I just earned my law degree and am taking the bar exam in July.

Congratulations on making it through the rigors of law school. It’s an endeavor where only the strong survive so you should pat yourself on the back for a job well done. But your journey isn’t over if you wish to use the title of lawyer or attorney. Successfully passing a state bar exam is the final step to completing your quest. Until then, you are in limbo with regard to your professional designation and should not refer to yourself as a lawyer or an attorney – because at this point, you are neither. So for now a description will have to do until the day you raise your hand, take your oath…and say “I do”.

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