A New Year’s Resolution for the Legal Profession: Stop Calling People Non-lawyers!

December 20, 2016

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Every once in a while I will read an article or hear a speech that causes me to recognize I’ve been acting like a fool in one way or another. And I am certain I have many more opportunities ahead of me for that kind of recognition. A great example of this phenomenon occurred for me not long ago when I heard Jordan Furlong, a very perceptive analyst of the legal market and the future of our profession, note that we are the only profession who describes everyone who is not one of us as a “non.”

He’s right. You don’t hear doctors calling everyone else in the medical field “non-doctors,” or CPAs calling their colleagues “non-CPAs.” In fact, it sounds absurd to even imagine them or any other professionals doing that. Yet that’s exactly what we do as lawyers, and I have certainly been guilty of my share of it over the years.

While I have no idea how we got started using the non-lawyer expression, and I don’t think it is something lawyers do with any ill will, it is pretty offensive when you think about it. And it betrays a shortsighted and artificially limiting mindset that has a number of negative consequences for access to justice, the future of our profession, and our public image as lawyers.

The Many Integral Legal Professionals Besides Lawyers

There are so many different professionals who contribute to a successful law practice today that I am sure I would forget some if I tried to name them all. In a larger law firm you increasingly will find a team of management, finance and administrative professionals; professionals dedicated to marketing and communications, technology, pricing, project management, analytics, and more; paralegals and other people dedicated to legal and operational support; and many outside consultants. Sometimes the people in these roles happen to also be lawyers, but it is generally more of a coincidence when that is the case; the kinds of experience and expertise these other professionals bring to the table is very different from what lawyers bring.

In smaller firms and other practice environments, these various kinds of expertise are more likely to come from consultants or contractors or through bar associations or professional networks, but they are no less important to a successful practice in the modern era. And if anything, this will be even more true in practices of all sizes in the future as technology continues to transform the practice of law.

Obviously, the delivery of quality legal services is the ultimate output for a law practice and lawyers remain the core of providing those services. But acknowledging that reality is no excuse for minimizing these professionals by defining them only as “non” or for laying down such a bright line divide between lawyers and the many other professionals who are integral to delivering the lawyers’ legal services effectively, and who increasingly provide value to clients in other ways as well.

That bright line divide is more than a matter of nomenclature, as right now in Illinois and almost everywhere else in the country we continue to cling to ethics rules that say only lawyers can own law firms and it is unethical for lawyers to share profits with anyone who is not a lawyer. As we work to wean ourselves off our unfortunate “non-lawyer” terminology habit, we should take a hard look in the mirror at why other legal professionals and outside investors can’t share in the ownership of law practices. England, Australia and other jurisdictions have already opened the door to other kinds of ownership, and it is time to have a more serious conversation about that here as well.

The Critical Roles of Other Legal Professionals for Access to Justice

While I’ll save the law practice ownership/investment discussion and its potential impact on access to justice for another day soon, other legal professionals can and increasingly do play a key role in access to justice in a number of ways. I want to focus on two important contributions in today’s post.

Pro bono
The first is on the pro bono front. Organizations dedicated to serving low and moderate income people in our community have most of the same challenges and opportunities as firms serving the business community. The same kinds of professional experience and expertise that contribute to the success of a law firm or corporate law department are sometimes even more valuable for nonprofit legal organizations serving our community. There already are a number of great examples of legal professionals providing their pro bono services to advance the work of legal aid and access to justice efforts here, and there is incredible potential for them to have even greater impact going forward.

Court-based assistance
Another role with a lot of potential for legal professionals and other volunteers involves providing direct assistance to unrepresented litigants in the courts. Our system is daunting and complicated for someone not trained in the law, and it can become even more frightening when that person is involved in a stressful legal matter. Many of the questions and concerns people have when they enter the system are not about the legal issue itself, but are more about the process they are going through. Where do I need to go? What forms do I need to file? What happens next? These kinds of issues not only don’t require the assistance of a lawyer, sometimes there are other people better situated to provide that help.

For example, the Illinois JusticeCorps program, like its California counterpart, continues to show real value for access to justice by utilizing college students and recent graduates to provide procedural and other neutral assistance in the courts. Illinois JusticeCorps recruits, trains and provides the necessary support for these AmeriCorps volunteers who serve as guides to make courts across Illinois more welcoming and less intimidating for people without lawyers.

Another example comes from New York. A new study from the American Bar Foundation and National Center on State Courts found that unrepresented tenants facing eviction in New York City were able to get significantly better results when they received the assistance of trained “court navigators” who are not lawyers when compared to tenants who had no assistance with their case.

These are just two examples that underscore there are many roles in ensuring access to justice in the courts that go beyond lawyers providing assistance or representation. While we do need to be wary of the “warm water in the desert” phenomenon as we look at expanding these programs (i.e., just because someone fares better with a navigator than on their own does not mean they would not have been better off with representation from a lawyer), there is no question that ensuring the court system is fair and accessible for all will involve many professionals and volunteers, not just lawyers.

A New Start

For all of these reasons, our profession should start 2017 by recognizing the error of our ways and dispatching with the term “non-lawyer” once and for all. Instead, let’s start calling everyone else who we work with by who they are, not who they are not. The interrelated quests for equal access to justice and a healthy and prosperous future for our legal profession will require a concerted team effort to succeed. And we’ll all be better off by recognizing that we all have important roles to play on that team, not just us lawyers.

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