Esquire (abbreviated Esq.) was originally a social rank above that of mere gentleman, allowed, for example, to the sons of nobles and gentry who did not possess any other title. A gentleman, on this basis, was designated Mr (before his name) whereas an Esquire was so designated (with no prefix before the name) after his name. A very late example of this distinction can be seen in the list of subscribers to The History of Elton by the Rev. Rose Fuller Whistler, published in 1882, which clearly distinguishes between subscribers designated "Mr" and those, of higher social position, designated "Esquire". But even then this was somewhat old-fashioned.
In the United States, there are no titled gentry or nobility, but the suffix "Esq." is commonly used to indicate that an individual is a lawyer, albeit not exclusively as there are no legal restrictions on the use of this suffix in the United States. This is a remnant of the United Kingdom practice, in which barristers claimed the status of Esquire and solicitors used the term "gentleman." In the United States, these separate roles of legal counsel have been combined.
In the United Kingdom (and, before the Act of Union, in England), tables of precedence were from time to time drawn up and they invariably ended, for men, with the ranks of Esquire and Gentleman in that order.
From time to time, attempts were made formally to define those entitled to the rank of Esquire, as opposed to Gentleman. A typical definition is as follows:
The use of Esquire (as Esq.) had become ubiquitous in the United Kingdom by the late 20th century, for example being applied by banks to all men who did not have a grander title. Although the College of Arms continues to restrict use of the word Esquire in official grants of arms to some (not even all) of those in the table above, it uses the term Esquire in all its correspondence, even to those who do not fall within any of the definitions in the table. Many people in the United Kingdom no longer appreciate that there is any distinction between "Mr" and "Esquire" at all and so, for practical purposes and in everyday usage, there is no such distinction.
When the title "Esq." is used as a suffix in the United States, it is usually used to designate individuals who are licensed to practice law in at least one United States jurisdiction. It is used less commonly for individuals who have earned law degrees — such as a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) — but who do not currently practice law or who have never been licensed to practice law, and for students who are still pursuing their law degrees (as they are considered members of the legal profession). However, there is no formal meaning associated with the use of this suffix, and there is no official body that polices the use of this title by American lawyers.
As a matter of custom, the suffix "Esq." is not used when referring to sitting judges who are "members of the bench" rather than "members of the bar" and are prohibited from practicing law in most United States jurisdictions. Conversely, practicing lawyers frequently act as judges pro tem in various United States jurisdictions, and when said lawyers are not sitting as judicial officers, there is no reason why they would not be referred to using the "Esq." suffix.
The suffix "Esq." originally applied only to men. However, since the 1970s it has been adopted by attorneys at law of both genders in the United States, in lieu of using "Mr." or "Ms." to emphasize the emerging role and status of women.
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