Law’s Titles

It’s been a busy summer so far, with a presentation at LSA under my belt, and lots of research still to come.  But I’ve been distracted of late with a pesky pedantic thought: which jobs that lawyers can aspire to create titles which survive the position?  That is, you’ve retired or left your official position.  Do the relevant norms allow you keep using the title?  I looked an unrepresentative sample of mainstream media articles.

  • Justices:  Now and forever.  State courts justices get demoted to “judge“, but it’s better than nothing.
  • The Solicitor General: “General Kagan” now, “Justice Kagan” in a few weeks, Elena to friends.  But more generally, it looks like the former S.G.s (Fried, Olson, Clement, etc.) lose the title when they lose the job.
  • Attorney General:  It’s an awkward title, so at most the holders are called “former A.G.”
  • Professor: Er, there’s such a thing as losing your job as a professor? Regardless, you seem to get to keep the title, if not the cash.
  • SEC Commissioner:  It depends.  If you move into private practice, you seem to lose the title. If you move into academia, you gain a new one.

It’s a weird phenomenon.  To me, the titling of former judges looks like the exception, not the rule.  What am I missing?

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7 Responses

  1. Ambassador.



  2. Jennifer Hendricks says:

    I once read a Miss Manners column on the topic of retaining titles after leaving the job, but I don’t remember if there is a governing principle or just a list. Senator is retained, President is not.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    “President” might not be retained in third-person speech without a “former” attached, but aren’t former Presidents addressed to their face as “Mr. President”?

    Aside from A.G., other cabinet positions may result in stickier titles (though again there may be a second-person/third-person divide here too). My impression was that within their law firms, at least, both William Rogers and Warren Christopher were referred to as “Secretary” Rogers or Christopher. (Caveat: I was only a visitor at both firms, not an insider.) Both had served as Secretary of State.

    OTOH title retention in private practice also depends on the firm culture. At one of my former firms, I recall that former ambassadors, Congresspeople and other high-ranking political appointees who rejoined the firm were addressed by their first names. (Though a Wall Street firm, it was more shmatte than white-shoe: something that could not be said of 1970s-era Rogers & Wells.)

  4. Ani says:

    “But I’ve been distracted of late with a pesky pedantic thought: which jobs that lawyers can aspire to create titles which survive the position? That is, you’ve retired or left your official position. Do the relevant norms allow you keep using the title?”

    Honestly, can you envision having had one of those jobs and doing anything that promotes retention of the title? If you left the position voluntarily, you left the title too, in my book; marginally more defensible if the term simply expired, or if you otherwise lost the job (save for high crime or misdemeanor).

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    Michael…but I specified that people “aspire” to the job. Who would want to be a “dean” in today’s economic environment?

  6. William Baude says:

    The Miss Manners principle mentioned above is that the officer can retain the title of his or her office if and only if the office is non-unique: Governor Clinton; General Washington; Mr. Jefferson.

    Thus the rule ought to imply that former Justices and Professors can keep the title, but former Attorneys and Solicitors General cannot, and that does appear to be consistent with modern practice. (This leaves aside the question of whether it is proper for Attorneys and Solicitors General to go by “General,” in the first place.)

  7. William Baude says:

    By the way, the definition of “uniqueness” is actually a little unclear under this rule. My recollection is that “Attorney General of the United States” and “Solicitor General of the United States” are considered unique (even though there are of course state attorneys and solicitors general) but that “Governor” is not considered unique even though each state of course only has one governor.