“Esquire” Could Mean Lots of Things, Says Guy Not Licensed to Practice Law

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There are plenty of lawyers running around California, but there's likely to be one less in the near future.

Actually, it's not accurate to call John Mark Heurlin a "lawyer" at the moment, which is the whole point of this latest proceeding against him (the fourth or fifth depending on how you count). The first three involved fees. For example, in 2005 he was suspended for (among other things) refusing to turn over settlement money to his client because of a fee dispute. Mishandling client money is one of the cardinal sins of legal ethics, and here it contributed to a lengthy suspension. The order said Heurlin could seek reinstatement after two years, but he never did.

Nor did he ever actually stop practicing law.

This is a problem not just because the bar told him to stop but also because the unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor in California (like most places). According to this 2011 order, Heurlin didn't tell his partners he had been suspended, and when they found out (from opposing counsel), they voted to dissolve the partnership and they have all been fighting over the assets ever since. In the course of that fight and related matters, Heurlin continued to hold himself out as an attorney, using letterhead that said "Attorney at Law," signing his name "John M. Heurlin, Esq.," and signing a declaration stating that he was licensed to practice law in California. In 2011, citing this and the prior misconduct, the bar court recommended that he be disbarred.

One aggravating factor, the judge noted, was that Heurlin insisted there was nothing wrong with this, even though he was told by the Court of Appeal back in 2006 that it was troubled by his "cavalier" attitude toward his suspension (which at the time he was referring to as his "disability"). Five years later, his attitude had not improved:

Despite the appellate court's clear warnings and the legal authority it had provided to him, respondent argued before this court that terms such as “Esq.,” and “counselor at law,” “have no meaning in the State of California.”… At trial, respondent cross-examined witnesses about Esquire magazine in an attempt to show that the use of the honorific “Esq.” after the name of a suspended attorney … has no legal significance ….

For those of you thinking, that can't mean what I think it means, oh yes it can. It is a little clearer in the more recent ruling on Heurlin's appeal of the recommendation:

Heurlin further argues that the word "Esquire" has many meanings, including that of property owner and subscriber to the magazine Esquire. This argument is unconvincing because we do not focus on a single usage of a particular word [but rather] the context of the words and the general course of conduct.

(Emphasis added.) Yes, that's true. It's also unconvincing because, for example, no human being on the face of the Earth would ever put "Esq." after his name to indicate that he subscribes to Esquire. Let me know if I'm wrong about this, by all means. Yours sincerely, M. Kevin Underhill, J.D., Esq., Sci. Am., Nat. Geo., Sprts. Ill. (Swimsuit).

Heurlin's position appears to be that he can describe himself as an attorney because he is representing himself, a position that cannot be described as correct. From here, the recommendation goes to the state supreme court, which I am guessing will accept it. Whether or not that will matter to this guy remains to be seen.