Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is the Term 'Non-Lawyer' Disrespectful?

Nancy Byerly Jones raised some interesting points in her blog post titled 'My Personal Crusade to Cease All Use of the Word 'Non-lawyer' this past week. She followed up with an article at LawyersUSA titled ‘Treating ‘non-lawyers’ with respect.'

Her comments caught my attention.

I have to confess to using the 'non-lawyer' word frequently when I write and speak. I haven’t thought twice about using it, nor did it occur to me it might be a disrespectful term...probably because I didn't intend to be disrespectful. 'Non-lawyer' was an easy way to categorize everyone in the law office who wasn’t licensed to practice law. I was just as quick to refer to 'non-lawyers' as legal staff or legal support staff or, simply, support staff...or to use their titles: receptionist, legal secretary, legal assistant, paralegal, paralegal manager, etc.

Nancy made me re-think this issue when she said:

My distaste for the word goes way back to before I earned my law degree, when I served as a legal secretary, paralegal and law office manager. I learned that more than a few attorneys treated support staff disrespectfully and like second class citizens. And all these years later, I'm still very alert to anything and everything that shows disrespect to our support staff members.

Because of my years as a staff member and because of those legal assistants I've had the pleasure to know and work beside since, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for these critical legal team members. They play an enormous role in the building and maintaining of lawyers' and law offices' success stories.

The truth is -- whether we like it or not -- the old two tier structure is indeed alive and well in too many law offices (attorneys who see themselves way up 'there' on a pedestal and all the 'n-ls' waaaaay down the ladder beneath the lofty esquires and 'esquettes").

It's in these toxic offices where those in authority falsely begin to think (and act) like they are somehow better than their lowly underlings. This form of arrogance and the "I'm better than you" attitudes wreak havoc for workplace morale, productivity and stability."
I have to admit to being very slow to be offended by anyone and that usually serves me well. I won't be going to anger management classes any time soon. Much rolls off my back, although anyone who says they're 'certified' when they really have a 'certificate' can really irritate me. The same goes for people who refuse to acknowledge that the terms paralegal and legal assistant are synonymous. Unfortunately we're losing that battle.

But non-lawyer? I hadn't given that much thought and I certainly hadn't thought to be offended by it. Nancy is right, though. Do doctors refer to their staff as non-doctors? Do CPA's refer to their staff as non-CPA's? Are there non-veterinarians, non-architects, non-judges, non-dentists, non-teachers? In no other profession are members given a title with 'non' attached to it.

Following Nancy's post, Lynne Devenny jumped in with her blog post at Practical Paralegalism titled 'How Do You Feel About the N-Word?'

Is it a little like calling ourselves 'non-professionals' or even worse, labeling ourselves "not as valuable"?

Maybe Shakespeare was right and the issue is silly. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But maybe he's wrong, and casually throwing around the label 'non-lawyer' instead of the correct job title stinks.

The term 'non-lawyer' does not accord the many well-educated and experienced legal professionals without law degrees that are essential to the practice of law - legal secretaries, law librarians, IT specialists, investigators, law office managers, court reporters, legal marketers, videographers and paralegals to name a few - the appropriate recognition or respect that they deserve for their unique skills and training and invaluable contributions to the legal field.
Is it all in the context...or in the attitude? Example: If an attorney is kind to staff but calls them non-lawyers, it doesn't matter but when the belligerent person (and it doesn't necessarily have to be an attorney) sneers and calls someone a non-lawyer (meaning 'you are the bottom of the barrel around here'), it's unacceptable.

As Nancy says,

So although it's certainly not everyone who uses the 'n-l' word with a negative intent, why use it at all when there are so many other more respectful words from which we can choose (e.g. legal or law office staff members, legal staff personnel, legal assistants, support staff, etc.!)?
Unfortunately, no one can control other people's attitudes. So perhaps no one should use the term 'non-lawyer.' Why can't we be paralegals, legal secretaries, paralegal managers, law librarians, IT specialists, etc? Why should legal staff be 'non' anything? Everyone who works in a law firm is a valuable part of the whole, contributing to the success of the firm. Without staff, the attorney and the firm would not survive. Nancy is correct when she says,

So the point of taking the time to share my thoughts on this to ask you to join me in finding other words that are far more respectful when we are talking about folks who are not licensed to practice law. Just think of the looks I'd get from the receptionist at an accountant's office if I were to ask, "Are you the non-CPA? Or, when calling my doctor's office I said, "Hi, I'd like to speak with a non-doctor."

If you think about it, there are many issues we could be upset about and much more serious acts of disrespect than the 'non-lawyer' word (dropping work on us at the last minute, failure to say ‘thank you,’ failure to recognize achievements, failure to give raises, to name a few) so being offended by the term ‘non-lawyer’ may seem like a waste of energy. But is it perhaps the key to the whole issue of respect? If we were not ‘non’ employees, would we, instead, be more valuable employees?

We do have to pick our battles. However, every movement toward improvement starts with the grass roots. If we (meaning all paralegals and other legal support staff) stop using the term 'non-lawyers' and, instead, use our proper titles, perhaps others will also. That may, in turn, increase respect for everyone in the legal environment.

Give this some thought and be sure to leave a comment. I hope to hear from all of you. Is ‘non-lawyer’ a ‘non-issue’ or not?

©2009 Vicki Voisin, Inc.

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Unknown said...

I think the respectability of the term, 'non-lawyer,' truly depends on the context in which it is used. For example, the term is often used in articles and texts discussing the dangers of UPL (unauthorized practice of law). When used in this regard, I think the term is acceptable as a means of educating the public (and the legal profession) as to the professional limitations of 'non-lawyers.' However... I don't see any other arena in which the use of the phrase is acceptable. For the most part, paralegals and support staff should be introduced as precisely what they are--as opposed to what they are not. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am a paralegal, not a 'non-lawyer.' If they ask me for legal advice, I then clarify that I am not a lawyer and that I cannot provide legal advice. Notwithstanding, I am a professional within my capacity of a paralegal, just as legal secretaries and research specialists are also professionals. Aside from avoiding UPL and clarifying ones status with clients to clear up any confusion, I see no reason to introduce anyone as a 'non' anything.

ParaMel said...

I had never given much thought about this term until a few weeks ago when someone brought it up on Twitter. At first glance, I found it to be slightly offensive.

When I brought it up to my boss, though, he had a different thought. He believes the term came about as a necessary distinction between lawyers (those bound by the ABA ethics rules) and non-lawyers (those not specifically bound by the ABA ethics rules). It was an important way to classify people in the office based on who would be liable in certain situations. While non-lawyers should follow the guidelines the ABA sets out where applicable, they are not bound the same way attorneys are.

I am sure some people use the term disrepectfully, but those same people would probablye sneer the word "paralegal", too.

Margaret Lucas Agius said...

The term "nonlawyer" is taken directly from the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct:


Law Firms And Associations
Rule 5.3 Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistants

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

(a) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person's conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;

(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person's conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.


I don't find it particularly offensive, as I made the choice to NOT go on to law school, etc., to remove the "non" tag.

It sort of reminds me of a soft drink advertising campaign. Does anyone else remember 7Up as the "uncola"? Maybe "unlawyer" would be less offensive?

MountainGal said...

Hello to all & thanks for your comments regarding the big "N-L" word and my concerns over its use. Please see my most recent blog post ( and my comments below in reply to Ms. Agius's comments re the ABA Rules.

I may be missing something especially w/my travel weary brain these days, but not sure if I quite understand Ms. Agius's point here. Assuming I do understand her post correctly, she does not take offense to being called a non or "un" lawyer and if she did, she would fix it by getting her law degree. We sure need more great women lawyers amongst us, but to me, that would be one heck of a tough way to deal w/the non-lawyer word! Others who may not like it are probably like me and try to always wear their imaginary "thick skins" so as not to be over sensitive to other people's INsensitivities. I do not think, however, that it is OK to accept the "N-L" word just because the ABA (or any other entity or person) uses the word in a non-attacking manner. If other professions and trades avoid calling those outside their fields non-architects, non-nurses, non-bankers, non-doctors, non-maintenance workers, non-business owners, etc.... I just can't for the life of me understand why our wonderful legal profession can’t do the same?!

Lawyers used to think they would never advertise, never email, never allow staff to do more than type, never act like a business (because attorneys were professionals NOT businesses so they thought!) and so on and so on....things do and must change as the years roll by and while it doesn't keep me awake at night, I really hope I live long enough to see one of the greatest professions in the world totally eliminate the "N-L" word from its collective vocabulary. Just because we've always used the word by no means prevents us from deciding it's inappropriate to do so and that we could do better! And IMHO :-) ---- if it offends even ONE of our profession's great legal assistants whom are so very critical to the success of the entire team, that's one too many ---- especially when we have such a vast number of other words we could use instead.

Thanks for listening and your comments to Vicki's post re my "N-L' post! I wish everyone a great week and one that's full of smiles shared by you and shared with you!
Nancy Byerly Jones (Twitter:@lawbusinesstips,; and

WendyNC said...

I may be full of stuff here, but I think the term "non-lawyer" comes not from a two-tiered system but a three-tiered one.

Back in the day, there were partners, there were associates (non-partner attorneys) and there was everybody else. In those days, the word "staff" meant everyone who wasn't a partner. I believe the use of non-lawyer evolved to differentiate between licensed staff and unlicensed staff.

Since this issue came up, I've been thinking about how non-licensed staff, as a group, could be identified without using "non" but I haven't yet come up with anything. I'd be much happier with a two-tiered system where one was either lawyer or staff, in instances where licensing distinguishes the groups, but law office culture evolves slowly so I don't see it happening during my working years.

As between being called a "non-lawyer" or "non-licensed" or worse, "unlicensed," I'll take non-lawyer. In truth, since I've always worked in very small firms, in situations where I don't have to establish my legal bona fides, I generally refer to myself as "the help."

Wendy Kimbel, ACP, NCCP