A Banned Words List for Access to Justice

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Over the past couple of weeks, I have heard a heavier than usual dose of words and phrases that are common in the access to justice world but really need to go. As a result, this month I am taking a break from pontificating about the future to advocate for the start of a banned words list for our legal profession. Think of it like spring cleaning now that we are finally seeing spring around here.

To start the banned words list, I am going to share my top five today. Many of these words have been in use for a long time and are just dated references to a bygone era in legal aid that aren’t particularly helpful today. Others really should never have come into being in the first place, including my first nominee below. And while I don’t attribute any malice to anyone who uses these phrases (I confess to using some of them earlier in my career), it’s high time to retire them!

Low Bono

Chances are you have heard the phrase low bono at some point, usually in connection with a program trying to help people of modest means with pricing that is below what the lawyer/firm/program normally would charge.

The thinking apparently is there is pro bono, which is free legal services, so why not use low bono as a cute way to describe discounted services.

Well, I could write this whole post on why not to use that phrase, but will stick to the two reasons that jump out most prominently. First, if you are the potential client, low bono is a meaningless phrase at best. And once it is understood, would you want a service that was described that way?

I offer two suggestions that are much better ways of describing it for all concerned: (1) affordable and flexible service options; or (2) sliding-scale pricing depending on your income/ability to pay.

Legal Services

These next two words are relics of the early days of legal aid. First off, for whatever reason, people started calling free legal help for low-income people legal services back then.

Not to be Captain Obvious here, but the phrase legal services describes the services that all lawyers deliver and is not at all unique to lawyers providing legal aid. And for anyone in the legal profession born after the Baby Boom generation, or for the broader public of any age, it is a completely meaningless description.

If you are talking about legal aid provided by paid staff, call it legal aid. Or if you are talking about pro bono services by a private lawyer, call it pro bono. Both deliver legal services to low-income and disadvantaged people and the organizations that serve them, but they aren’t the only ones delivering legal services in the world.

Poverty Law

Another artifact from the early days of legal aid is describing the work as poverty law.

Yes, legal aid helps people in poverty, but generally speaking the law they are helping their clients navigate is the same law that applies to everyone else. (The exception would be legal issues surrounding government programs that are directly aimed at helping poor people, such as public benefits).

That may help explain why the phrase poverty law is meaningless or confusing to most of our profession and to the general public. We will get a better reception and broader public support for the work if we just describe it as legal aid.

There is no doubt that poor people more often are particularly vulnerable when facing a legal situation, and many times these are issues that disproportionately impact the lives of low-income and disadvantaged people. Those are great points to stress in talking about why legal aid is so important. But unless that actually is the organization’s mission (like our longtime great partner the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law), it’s well past time for the phrase poverty law to join the annals of history.

Justice Gap

The justice gap phrase is of more recent vintage, and a big problem with this one is inconsistent use. Some use it to describe there not being nearly enough legal aid resources to meet the needs of low-income people. Others use it to describe the lack of affordable and accessible options for people in the middle class who make too much money to qualify for already overstretched legal aid but not enough to afford services in the traditional legal market.

Even if we were clear in what we mean when we use it, our friends at Voices for Civil Justice have identified the bigger problem with the justice gap phrase: it is largely meaningless to the world outside the legal profession.

As Voices points out, the one time it is appropriate to use it is when referencing the recent 2017 Justice Gap Report by the Legal Services Corporation, as it is literally the title of the report. Otherwise, best to leave this one alone.

Non-lawyer

I saved the most glaring one for last, because this one continues to be a huge problem in our profession that makes us all look bad.

My 2017 New Year’s Resolution for the Profession was to stop calling people non-lawyers, and it carried over as part of my 2018 New Year’s Resolution because it is such a persistent and perplexingly bad habit for our profession. The summary version of that resolution: we are the only profession that calls other people by who they are not; other legal and business professionals play an increasingly integral role in the success of the legal profession and access to justice; and we need to start calling these professionals by who they are rather than who they are not.

So if we want to talk about the growing number of people who play an essential role in the cause but are not lawyers, at a minimum call them legal professionals, other business professionals, or laypeople (depending on which of those is most descriptive).

Even better, refer to them more specifically by the particular role they play (e.g., CIO, Marketing Director, Paralegal, Clerk, etc.).

Whatever we do though, stop calling them non-lawyers!

For Extra Credit

Please take this as a starting point for the access to justice banned words list. If you have other words you think should be added to the list, suggestions are always welcome. And if you are brave enough to want to defend one of these words or phrases, bring it on!

Now that we know more about what not to say, we all could learn a few things about what we should say when talking about legal aid and access to justice. I encourage you to check out Voices for Civil Justice for some good tips there.