All the fuss recently in the courts and the legal profession generally about modes of address, honorifics, and pronouns has made me somewhat nostalgic for the ‘good ole days’, when a younger person might respectfully address an elder by their surname with a conventional prefix, and when my correspondence and pleadings were always signed with the suffix “Esquire”.
When I was first called to the bar the practice was practically universal, when corresponding with another lawyer, to use the courtesy title of ‘Esquire”, as well as to claim it for oneself. According to Wikipedia “Esquire was historically a title of respect accorded to men of higher social rank, particularly members of the landed gentry above the rank of gentleman and below the rank of knight.” Somehow, in North America the title was co-oped by the legal profession, to signify a fully qualified and licenced lawyer.
Of course, in those days the law was still a male dominated profession, and, as a group, we were supremely unconcerned with the issue of gender inequality, so were untroubled by the fact that ‘Esquire’ from its murky medieval origins onwards, has always been a male title- until the day the first female lawyer rode into our small town.
Kathy Downs ( later Madame Justice Kathleen Downs of the British Columbia Supreme Court,) was Harvard trained, smart as a whip, and puzzled by the conceit of male lawyers appending “Esq.” to their name at every opportunity. (She was also puzzled by the second doorway to the Globe Hotel, the local watering hole for young lawyers, which still bore the “Ladies and Escorts” sign over its portal, but she barged in anyway, unescorted.)
Over beers she posed the question to the assembled brain trust- “”so, if you guys are esquires, what title do I use?” The question sparked much lively debate, fueled by many rounds of draft beer, but in the end, remained unanswered. That is, until the next Chambers day.
In our small town the court held “chambers” once a week, where lawyers would assemble in front of the local judge to process all manner of procedural and interlocutory matters. It was as much a social event as a legal one, as every firm in town had a myriad of mundane matters that required rubber stamping by a judge, so we all attended, and gossiped while awaiting our turn. It was there that we learned that Kathy had answered her question all by herself.
Her case was called, and Kathy rose to address the court, but was cut off before she could begin by a stentorian roar from the bench.
“What, Miss Downs, is the meaning of this!” demanded the judge, staring down over his bi-focals, waving Kathy’s Notice of Motion furiously about.
Feigning ignorance, Kathy demurely inquired what he meant.
“This pleading is signed by “Kathleen Downs, Lady“- you are referring to yourself by the title of “Lady”- now explain yourself!” Whereupon the judge was treated to a feisty, but well researched treatise on the origin of the term “esquire,” and the lack of a feminine equivalent, which ended by Kathy posing to the court the same question she had put to her beer guzzling colleagues.
The judge, evidently disgruntled that the rising tide of feminism had finally breached the sanctity of his court, straightened his back, and proclaimed:
“That will be for others to decide, but madame, I can assure you that, in this court room-
YOU ARE NO LADY!”
Like most of the lawyers who were present in chambers that day, I quietly dropped the habit of using the title esquire thereafter. Its usage seems to have faded out generally, since it must be two decades since I’ve been addressed as a Esq., although I am told that several states in the US cling religiously to its use to designate properly licenced practitioners.
It is one of those anachronisms that dwindle harmlessly away, unmissed in day to day life, but randomly recalled on a rainy afternoon, when reminiscences of younger times and court rooms far away bubble to the surface.
Whither Esquire indeed!