Banned Words for Access to Justice 2.0

September 27, 2021

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

Those of us who care about access to justice use a lot of terms that do our cause no favors. These are words and phrases that either don’t mean anything to our target audience, don’t necessarily mean what we think, or inadvertently just turn people off.

A few years ago, I took a crack at a banned words list to highlight what I think are the worst offenders and the time has come for version 2.0. Sadly, most of my originals are still used enough they make the new version too. The case for one of them has only gotten stronger, and I have one new addition. I also believe it is time to consider whether the phrase access to justice itself belongs on the list.

Non-lawyer

While it admittedly is a low bar, the most popular post by far in the Bobservations series was my New Year’s Resolution for the Legal Profession to “Stop Calling People Non-Lawyers.” That post was almost five years ago now, and despite an increasing number of others also calling attention to this problem, the term is still used widely in our profession today.

In a time when we all are rightly more focused on inclusion in our work, calling people non-lawyers only looks worse today. As the business of law and the delivery of legal services gets more complex by the day, there are host of other legal and business professionals who increasingly play integral roles in any successful law firm or legal department and in the broader delivery of legal services.

We don’t see doctors calling others non-doctors, dentists don’t call others non-dentists, and you won’t hear a CPA calling others a non-CPA. They call others in their profession by who they are: nurses, dental hygienists, bookkeepers, etc. I could go on here, but you get the point: this is a uniquely bad habit of lawyers.

We can strike a better path by calling others in our profession by who they are whenever we can. And when the situation calls for speaking of others in our profession more generally, we can call them “other legal professionals” (paralegals, the many other law firm professional roles), “other professionals” (when talking more broadly about other business professionals like accountants and technology roles), or just “other people” (while we may not always act like it, lawyers are people too). 

The bottom line is there is a better alternative every time, and we need to send the non-lawyer term off into the sunset once and for all.

Acronyms

My new addition for Version 2.0 is acronyms. I imagine every industry uses acronyms to some degree, but even within the broader legal profession, we really love to use acronyms in the access to justice space. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, people who are not already a part of the choir have no idea what we are talking about.

Take legal aid organizations as just one example. In Chicago, the practice among insiders is so prevalent to refer to programs by their acronym that one director years ago accurately analogized it to alphabet soup. The problem is we do this without thinking about who is on the receiving end, and far more often than we realize, they don’t know what we are referring to.

I am guilty of this one too, and my suggestion for me and everyone else is next time you are about to casually toss out an acronym in this work, think about your audience. Are you sure they know what you are referring to when you use it? When in doubt, and that frankly should be most instances, don’t do it!

Legal Services, or Legal Services Organization

Every lawyer and many other professionals and entities provide legal services as part of their work. But many in our community still use this term to describe legal aid, and we should not be surprised that most of our profession and the rest of the world has no idea what we are talking about when we do that.

When we are talking about legal aid, we should just say legal aid.

Justice Gap

This term, generally used to describe the gap between legal needs in the community and available services, poses problems on two fronts.

First, it is not used consistently even among those who might understand what we are talking about. Some use it to describe the unmet need for legal aid among low-income and disadvantaged people, while others use it to describe the shortage of affordable services for the middle class, and still others mean all of the above.

The second and bigger issue is that the term is largely meaningless anyway to people outside the core access to justice community.

Instead of using this term that is unlikely to be understood by our target audience, better to describe more specifically the gap we are referring to when we say it (e.g, the large gap between available legal aid and the need in the community).

Low Bono

This one comes up less often these days, but it is still used by many as shorthand for a lawyer, firm, or program that provides services below what “the market” would normally charge.

Two big problems with this one. First, if you are the potential client, low bono is a meaningless phrase at best. And second, once it is understood, would you want a service that was described that way?

The better way of describing it for all concerned, depending on what you are referring to, is: (1) affordable and flexible service options; or (2) sliding-scale pricing based on income/ability to pay.

Access to justice

While I’m not prepared to add it just yet, I think we’ve reached a point where we need to consider whether the phrase “access to justice” itself should land on this list.

As with most of the examples above, not everyone is using the phrase to mean the same thing, and often with wide variances (e.g., just low-income v. all in need, basic procedural access v. what is necessary to get a fair hearing, targeted groups of need or the entire community). I question whether we have a common enough definition for this term to be meaningful outside of our own circles without further explanation.

I tried to come up with a universal definition for access to justice a few years ago, and it is an issue I plan to revisit soon. My shorthand suggestion is:

A person facing a legal issue has timely and affordable access to the level of legal help they need to get a fair outcome on the merits of their legal issue and can walk away believing they got a fair shake in the process.”

Whether you like my attempt at defining it or prefer something else, it would do us all good to agree on a common definition. Most of us, the CBF included, consider access to justice as one of our ultimate goals, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, all roads will lead you there.

Why It Matters

When we’re talking to others in the “club,” these language issues may not seem like they are such a big deal. But if we want to reach the goal of a justice system that is truly fair and accessible for all, our club has to get a whole lot bigger. Clarity in what we are saying and respect for the people we are saying it to are great places to start!