Doctors, Professors, and (North) American Exceptionalism

by Kevin Jon Heller

There is a friendly debate going on at Prawfsblawg about whether people who have PhDs or JSDs in law are entitled to refer to themselves as “Dr. so-and-so.”  Skepticism seems to be the order of the day; here are quotes from Paul Horwitz and Jeff Yates, respectively:

Although I think there’s a good deal to be said for obtaining JSDs or Ph.D’s in law, we might think about whether that trend represents a similar claim to authority and respect for law as an academic discipline; and if those folks start demanding to be called “Doctor,” we’ll know something’s up.

[I]s it appropriate to refer to yourself as “doctor” if you have a Juris Doctorate? A Ph.D.? This seems to bring up a number of concerns  — Who “earned” it? Is it misleading? Why do people need such titles anyway?

This debate is indicative of the insularity of American and Canadian legal academia.  Outside of the U.S. and Canada (and I’m not even sure about Canada), no one would ever question the right of someone who has PhD in law to call himself or herself “Dr.”.  Nor would anyone outside of the U.S. or Canada ever question whether law is an academic discipline.  If anything, the debate speaks to a certain professional insecurity in North America, where law school is professionalized in a way that it is not in most other countries, including English-speaking ones like the UK and Australia.  Not that I in any way blame North American legal academics, especially those in the U.S.: insecurity about whether law is an academic discipline is natural in a legal environment in which there is constant pressure on academics to produce “useful” — i.e., “non-academic” — scholarship.  If I felt disciplinary pressure to produce pedantic scholarship of immediate practical use to lawyers and judges, I’d probably begin to question whether law was an academic discipline, as well.  Fortunately, there are hundreds of American and Canadian legal scholars who resist that pressure and produce superb “academic” legal scholarship that not only increases our understanding of law as an intellectual discipline, but enriches legal practice, as well.  (You don’t have to be Derrida to know that the academic/practical binary is an unstable one.)

I also fail to see why JSDs should not call themselves “Dr.”, assuming that they have produced a dissertation that is equivalent to the one required by traditional PhD programs in law (80,000-120,000 words, the size of an average book).  I suppose it’s possible that JSD requirements are lower at some U.S. law schools, but that is certainly not true across the board.  My colleague Kirsty Gover — “Dr. Kirsty Gover,” according to her Melbourne name-plate — completed her JSD at NYU, and her brilliant dissertation on tribal constitutionalism was recently published by Oxford University Press.  She is every bit the doctor of law that a PhD in law is.

Finally, I’d like to turn the “Dr.” debate around and ask why Assistant Professors and Associate Professors in the U.S. and Canada (to say nothing of adjuncts and non-tenure-track legal instructors) should be entitled to call themselves “Professor.”  That is, of course, a uniquely North American phenomenon — in most other countries, particularly in the common-law world, “Professor” is a title reserved for scholars who have reached the pinnacle of legal academia, normally after years if not decades of work.  In such countries, it would be the height of arrogance for a lecturer in law to call himself “Professor” — something I’ve learned the hard way as I’ve had to adjust to being called “Dr. Heller,” “Mr. Heller” (before I obtained my PhD), or simply “Kevin” instead of “Professor Heller,” my title as a brand-new Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia.  At Melbourne, not even Associate Professors, a title that itself indicates substantial distinction in the field, call themselves “Professor.”  Unless you are a full professor, you’re a lecturer.  So isn’t the American and Canadian practice of title inflation simply questionable North American exceptionalism?

Readers —  North American and non-North American?

13 Responses

  1. It strikes me as crazy to suggest that people with a PhD in law or SJD should somehow be distinguished from recipients of PhDs in other disciplines. The time to argue that this was not a “serious academic discipline” might have been before universities around the world started handing out the same ‘doctoral’ degrees in law as they do in other disciplines. That no longer seems open to serious dispute.

    In Canada, perhaps outside of military and religion, we do not change our mode of address depending on the working title that a particular institution might decide to (temporarily) bestow upon its staff. Surely, if you are a tenured professor at one institution, serving as a visiting lecturer at another, you should be addressed as “professor” anywhere. Tenure is undoubtedly a major accomplishment, but not an accreditation. In Canada, we address people based upon the role they are presenting to us–medical interns might be addressed as “doctor”, teachers as “teacher”, and university teaching faculty as “professor” (regardless of their tenure or receipt of a PhD). Hardly “title inflation”. North Americans pay heed to money (unfortunately), not title, as in the rest of the common wealth/law world.

  2. Miles,

    Thanks for chiming in.  Admittedly, I’m a bit touchy about the subject — it gets very old explaining to my fellow Americans that being a post-confirmation Senior Lecturer is equivalent to being a tenured Associate Professor in the U.S.  And I can’t tell you how many students of mine have marveled at a 28-year-old “Professor” and then replied, when I told them that the person in question was in his first year of teaching, “so why does he call himself ‘Professor’?”

  3. I’ve got nothing of significance to contribute to this debate and have no strong feelings one way or the other…however, when Shaquille O’Neal recently earned his Ed.D. in Human Resource Development, his mother exclaimed, “And now I get to call him Dr. O’Neal.” So too might we all, and I’d be more than happy to oblige should that be his wish.

    I barely received an MA degree, having prematurely left graduate school, and only then because one of my professors phoned me some years later and suggested I take care of the paperwork to receive the degree. It turned out to be fortuitous, as I later was given an opportunity to teach and could not have accepted had I not had the degree in hand. I’ve been told by not a few folks that I should return to school for a PhD, especially because I have a few manuscripts lying around that, with a little polish, could serve as my dissertation. However, at my age, my heart’s not in it, and I can’t justify going into debt once more, having paid off previous student loans in middle age. A PhD simply has no meaning for me. Yet what meaning it might have for others I’m again happy to acknowledge.

    One last thing: my students at the community college often (not knowing better) refer to me as “Professor O’Donnell.” It makes me rather uncomfortable, knowing what a true professor is, so I always inform them that I’m not a “professor.” and that they should simply call me “Mr. O’Donnell” (rather than, say, ‘dude,’ ‘Patrick,’ etc.).

  4. Perhaps it is an error that JD (Juris doctorate) and PHD is being conflated into the same “type” when referring to the right to call someone a Dr: “[I]s it appropriate to refer to yourself as “doctor” if you have a Juris Doctorate? A Ph.D.?” – A JSD is a Doctorate of Jurisprudence, not a Juris Doctorate – the latter basically being a BA/LLB in law.

    I can speculate a few reasons as to why there is this skepticism about Phds in Law in the U.S.: 1) foreigners usually do the PhD/JSD in law and go back to their own countries – they just don’t see a big selection of strong, fluent in English JSD’s appearing on their hiring market – perceptions might change if more good candidates aim for the U.S. market 2) a PhD in other disciplines take 5-6 years whereas Phds in law (wherever it is) often takes approximately 3 years 3) there is no fixed standard of conferring the degree – there are people who can write outstanding full-length publishable dissertations and still be granted the JSD and I have also seen examples of people writing, well let’s say, masters thesis and getting through 4) in appears that in the entry level hiring market, there is a preference for people who can produce a number of bite sized articles rather than one largue publishable piece. 5) there is much less focus on doctrinal issues in the U.S. – which often happens to be the crux of most PHds/JSDs in law. 
    Also as someone who studied law in England before coming to the U.S. I think there’s much more emphasis on tiltes in the latter. In the UK, a senior academic (reader, for example) may be referred to by students in the U.K. by first name but in the U.S. most academics (even recent JD graduates (!) who were “post-docs”) prefer to be referred to by professor – I did not see this in other disciplines such as political science or economics though. Perhaps there is a desire in the U.S. to maintain some “exclusivity” for law schools/professors. Whether the reference to “professor” or not is a good thing, who knows…its nice to have the title when you’ve put in a lot of hard work but at the same time its apposite to note what Judge Posner said about his law clerks addressing him as “Judge”  “”I’m one of the very few judges to have my law clerks call me by my first name, because I don’t want them to think of me as anything special,”



  5. Slightly off topic, but I seem to recall that you said you would blog something about your Ph.D. defence when you had time. Given that I defended my Ph.D. (in Law & economics, which opens up a whole new can of worms) in the Netherlands last year as well, I’d be curious what you thought.

  6. O, and on-topic: When I started my Ph.D. it took me a full week to get used to calling my now-colleagues by their first name. As an undergraduate, I would never have dreamed of doing so. Unless they insist otherwise, Dutch university lecturers are called Mr./Mrs. X or – if they are a full professor – prof. X. (The only people I ever call doctor are medical doctors.)

  7. Thanks, Kevin, for bringing this over to OJ. I have responded to Paul over at PB, but I thought I would copy my comments here too. BTW, Paul’s office is right next to mine and he is a good friend. That’s neither here nor there on this point, but I couldnt help mentioning it:
    Paul, I’m not sure I can even factually agree with you here. You say “for non-medical doctors in these countries [DJ-I assume you are here referring to the US and Canada], using “Doctor” as an honorific is rare because of the general descriptive assumption that it refers to medical doctors” But I think I’m right to say that pretty much all of the PhD’s who teach in academic disciplines, in the U.S. at least, refer to themselves, and are referred to by their students, as Doctor. And even generally in American society I dont think anyone questions that someone with a PhD in an academic discipline is entitled to be called Doctor. And I certainly agree with Kevin’s Opinio Juris post that in the rest of the world, PhD’s in law are accorded the same customary courtesy as are any other academic PhD’s, of being referred to as Doctor by students and administration, and in society generally. Like Kevin, I have a PhD in law from the U.K., and I know what I had to do to get it. I had to write a book that was peer reviewed as a PhD thesis in quite a laborious, rigorous and time consuming process. Just like PhD’s in any other discipline.
    I know youre not trying to slight anyone in your post. And I think I understand that your primary point was really in distinguishing MD’s from all PhD’s in terms of what they are/should be called in society. I do wonder, though, why even this should be a point of emphasis. Are MD’s not identically fighting for respect, and showing the same kind of insecurity and Freudian I-don’t-know-what by wanting to be called Doctor, as are holders of academic PhD’s? Why focus on academic PhD’s as being insecure and validation seeking, and not all Doctors? 

  8. Dan,

    Thanks for that.  I certainly wasn’t offended by Paul’s post; like you, I just thought it was inaccurate and reflected a very North American approach to legal education.

    I should point out, though, that my PhD is actually from the Netherlands. 🙂

  9. @Dan: to reiterate what appears to have been only a small point in my previous comment: In most European countries, no Ph.D. ever gets called doctor except in writing. The only people who are ever called doctor out loud are MDs. 

    (Exceptions include the German-speaking part of the continent, where they’re very precise about such things, and my current country of residence, Italy, where everyone who has an undergraduate degree is called dottore.)

  10. Response…
    Professor seems the greater honor.
    When I was in law school at UCLA (my first of three), I led the movement at UCLA and coordinated with folk at UC Berkeley to change from the LL.B. to the J.D.  We even had a moot court hearing on the matter at UCLA, which we won.  We demonstrated that there had been some needless but nonetheless actual discrimination against some holders of the LL.B.  When the two UC schools adopted the J.D., it seems that there were soon a flood of changes elsewhere to the J.D.
    It was curious at least to get another bachelor degree after three years of law school in the U.S. and four years undergrad.  Now, perhaps, it is also curious that one can get an LL.M. (masters degree) after having earned a J.D. (doctorate), but somehow we all survive.

  11. “Why [should] Assistant Professors and Associate Professors in the U.S. and Canada (to say nothing of adjuncts and non-tenure-track legal instructors) should be entitled to call themselves “Professor[?]”

    In my experience as a law student, I have learned more, and had a more valuable educational experience generally, in classes with adjunct professors than I have in classes with tenure-track professors. I presume this is because adjuncts (at least the adjuncts that have taught me) have actual, practical experience working in the real world, and they know what it is like to be a practicing attorney. It is that sort of instruction that provides real value to a student’s education, and makes them more attractive in the legal job market.

    The fact that an adjunct has spent his (or her) life practicing law rather than paying his (or her) dues to academia as a “scholar” does not mean that he (or she) is any less worthy of the title “Professor” than a tenure-track instructor. Being a Professor isn’t about being a scholar or how often you’ve been published. It’s about being able to teach.  And simply because you’ve spent your life in academia does not automatically mean that you can teach.

    On a more tangential note, I should hope that tenure-track professors continue to get pressured to produce “useful” scholarship. Indeed, I should hope the entire field of legal education becomes more “useful,” lest law schools continue to produce students who know perfectly well how to brief a case or write an exam, but not how to practice law. Law school needs to become more vocational, practical, and experiential, and less obtuse and intellectual. One way to do this is by hiring more adjunct professors. That’s not to say that tenure-track Professors ought to become extinct. But the cost of legal education is skyrocketing, and students are seeing no corresponding increase in the value of that education. It’s high time that student tuition stop subsidizing the scholarship of tenure-track professors, in favor of a more practical and sustainable pedagogical model.

  12. Kevin, you should move to Europe so you can be Prof. Dr. Heller! Best of both worlds.

    Being at the end of the PhD in law process, I definitely don’t see why it would/should be different from a PhD in another discipline. If engineers can become a Doctor of Philosophy, surely lawyers can too! 

  13. At the risk of sounding like an old crank, i will recall that during my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago (1966-70) faculty were not called “Doctor” or “Professor” but rather “Mister” or (in those pre-Ms days) “Miss” or “Mrs”. This was not a late ’60s student rebellion against authority – it was a much older-school view that emanated from the faculty (not the students) that the fancier titles were not appropriate to a democracy. Forty years later, it still bothers me that students say “Professor” or “Doctor” (except in the clinic, where thankfully we use first names).

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