Noteworthy Progress in Shaking One of Our Legal Profession’s Worst Habits

In the almost eight years since the advent of Bobservations, the post that by far holds the record for an animated response was my first New Year’s Resolution for the Legal Profession at the end of 2016: Stop Calling People Non-Lawyers!

Referring to the many other people who play integral roles in the delivery of legal services and access to justice by who they are not rather than by who they are is not a good look for us as lawyers. We are the only profession that does this, and yet it is somehow ingrained in our legal lexicon and has remarkable persistence. 

The good news is that there recently have been some green shoots in breaking this bad habit, and what prompted me to revisit this issue was a particularly impressive example of that in a new award established by Legal Aid Chicago at their annual luncheon earlier this month.

The problem in a nutshell

We don’t hear doctors routinely calling everyone else they work with “non-doctors”, dentists calling others “non-dentists,” or CPAs calling people “non-CPAs.” They call them nurses, dental hygienists, bookkeepers, and by the many other professional titles they carry.

Lawyers, on the other hand, regularly use the term “non-lawyer” to describe everyone else we work with who is not a lawyer. This bad habit is so ubiquitous that it has seeped into the media covering the profession and we will even hear other legal professionals refer to themselves as non-lawyers.

While I think this is rarely done with this intent, this kind of terminology can inadvertently set up an unhelpful “us and them” narrative in our legal community that minimizes the many other integral roles people play in the delivery of legal services and access to justice more broadly.  

Bad habits often have a way of persisting (it is why we call them habits), but this one has been a particularly hard one for us to break. There recently have been some positive signs of change though, with many more voices calling for our profession to stop calling people “nons” and a growing national conversation about how we can better recognize and empower other professionals and advocates in the delivery of justice.

Legal Aid Chicago sets a great example

At its annual luncheon earlier this month, an addition to its existing awards recognizing one of its staff lawyers for outstanding work, Legal Aid Chicago inaugurated a new award to recognize the valuable work of staff in other roles in the organization. The new Diaz Award is named for Mary Ellen Diaz, who is now the Manager of Interpreting and Translating and has played other prominent organizational roles in her more than 53-year career.

No, she is not a lawyer, but that is not how anyone referred to her or talked about the first very deserving honoree for the award, Pedro Gaytan, a longtime paralegal at the organization who was aptly described as “the beating heart” of their migrant team.  

As Kate Shank, Deputy Director and Chief of Staff for Legal Aid Chicago eloquently stated in introducing the award:

Starting this year, we are adding an overdue recognition for a teammate who serves in a different professional capacity. This recognition is an acknowledgment of the fact that justice needs attorneys, yes, but it also requires a wide array of other professionals with essential expertise.

Our administrative and other teams ensure everything about our organization is top- managing our funds, providing frontline connections to our clients, administering our operations, providing and maintaining critical technology, and engaging our donors. They do this work because they too have a commitment to justice. Even when they aren’t client-facing, they are still motivated by our mission and apply their talents and energy toward it. Our attorneys cannot provide exceptional service without these professionals and starting this year we wanted to formally and publicly acknowledge their crucial roles.

Well said Kate, and well-deserved recognition for Mary Ellen and Pedro!

They are not lawyers, they are….

One of the most common excuses for the continued use of the “nonlawyer” term is not knowing what to say as an alternative. That is a lazy excuse.

The starting point should be to call people by their professional title whenever possible rather than lumping them into a general category of what they are not. On the client-facing side that may include paralegals, outreach coordinators, accredited representatives, patent agents, receptionists, and many others. And on the business and operations side, there are chief operating officers, administrative directors, clerks, a variety of marketing professionals, accountants, technology directors, and so many more key roles.

Our profession and our justice system do not work well, and in many instances don’t work at all, without the important work of these other professionals and we should recognize them for who they are.

Most lawyers quickly acknowledge the above point when we have these conversations, but then ask the next question, how do we refer to these others when we are speaking of them writ large?  In other words, if we are saying lawyers and other (fill in the blank), what should we say?

While there is not a one-size fits all answer to that question, there is always a better answer than regressing to the nonlawyer tag. Depending on the context, it may be “other legal professionals” (when talking about roles specific to the legal community), “other professionals” (for the many other professionals lawyers work with), “other advocates” or “other authorized representatives” (for the many other advocates who work directly with clients), or just “other people” (even if we don’t always act like it, lawyers are people too. 

Building on the momentum

While the reality is we are still swimming against the tide in trying to rid ourselves of our non-lawyer habit, these recent positive steps show us it is possible to do better. Let’s do it!