I am flabbergasted that my LinkedIn post suggesting that we all stop using the term “non-lawyer” has gotten over 91,000+ views to date, as well as over 900 likes and over 140 comments
Many of the comments on the above post were great observations, tips and suggestions, so I have summarized some of them here (all non-attributed). Why? Because the post resonated with so many, the law is no longer about lawyers only, and being more conscious of the terms we use in certain contexts will help collaboration, teamwork, morale, evolution and innovation throughout the legal profession. As one comment said, “In a profession that shouts so loudly about diversity and inclusion, the micro-messages, biases and segregation continues in ways that are hidden in plain sight.”
Why Should We Stop Using the Term “Non-Lawyer”?
The culture, traditions, hierarchy and “us-them” chasm in many law firms perpetuate the use of the term “non-lawyer.” But, in my professional experience, I think many lawyers (and others) use the term without even thinking; at least this was true in my case.
For me, “non-lawyer” was just one of many unique-to-legal terms I heard, learned and then unconsciously repeated out of force of habit. Then, a few years ago, I became aware of how the term (in certain contexts) strikes many professionals who work in law firms (and are not licensed lawyers) as demeaning, insulting, dismissive and divisive, and immediately signals some sort of inferiority, detriment or disability.
The Meaning of “Non-Lawyer” Is Legally Required in Certain Contexts and Situations
Certainly, to comply with ethics and rules of professional responsibility in the U.S. and in other countries, the meaning of the term “non-lawyer” is important to use in contexts where legal representation options are being communicated to clients, prospects and others to connotate exactly who provides legal representation and advice (and who does not) and to provide privilege protections for communications.
The meaning of the term is also useful when trying to prevent deception and fraud by anyone holding themselves out as qualified and authorized by state, federal or other law to provide legal services. For example, many paralegals need to remind clients, “I am not a lawyer, so I cannot give you legal advice.”
In the UK, qualified legal practitioners are known as “solicitors” and “barristers,” so it isn’t always accurate to say “lawyer” to start with. It’s important to know the difference in legal titles for different jurisdictions. There are many solicitors, barristers and lawyers who have moved into marketing, and are now referred to as a “non-practising solicitors,” which is the correct terminology to use, according to the SRA.
In South Africa, the term “lawyer” is defined and comes with specific duties. As a result, legal studies graduates cannot refer to themselves as lawyers and similarly cannot engage in the duties of a lawyer. There is a “legal advisor” who also has specified duties. In South Africa, there is no non-lawyer. Instead, a person who is not any of the above and presents themselves as such is a fraud.
Choose More Positive and Productive Terms, as Appropriate
Let’s stop using all the negatively biased “non” terms in the legal profession (including non-lawyer, non-equity partner, non-fee earner, non-timekeeper, non-professional, and—the worst—fee burner), and instead start referring to all allied business professionals working in the legal industry by what they do or who they are, instead of who or what they are not.
Terms to consider using instead of “non-lawyer”:
- “Colleague”—e.g., “this is my colleague X, s/he is TITLE, and s/he works/specializes in X” (marketing, business development, operations, administration, recruiting, professional development, human resources, IT, etc.). If needed, “s/he does not practice law.”
- “Business professional” or “allied business professional.”
- Those professionals who work in business support service areas in law firms who do happen to be licensed lawyers could be referred to as “non-practicing lawyers.”
For those who are regularly referred to as a “non,” consider:
- Taking it with a grain of salt, letting it slide off you, just “letting it go”—i.e., have confidence in the fact that you are not a lawyer and that you are very good at what you do.
- Viewing it with humor – e.g., “recovering attorney,” #IANAL (I am not a lawyer).
- Viewing it as a compliment – with so many negative jokes about lawyers, not everyone aspires to be one. Maybe being called a non-lawyer is even a term of honor, as lawyers are not universally liked; in fact, one commenter posted, “So all these years when I took being called a non-lawyer as a compliment, I really should have been upset? Stick and stones….”
The above summary is designed to increase awareness that the term “non-lawyer” can be offensive to some in certain situations, and to suggest more productive word/term/label choices to use in the future (both verbally and in writing).
In the end, the legal profession is all about clients. To consistently provide value to clients, everyone in the ecosystem needs to work together. Everyone in the entire workforce in the legal profession is a professional who should recognize and respect other professionals’ talent, expertise, knowledge and contributions to providing the highest quality service. #BantheNons
Here is a related post about diversity and inclusion in the legal profession –
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Follow the author, Julie Savarino on LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliesavarino/
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This article does not nor is it intended to provide legal advice. It is simply a summary of some comments posted on LinkedIn in response to the post linked above. The author is a nonpracticing lawyer.