We really need to stop using the term “non-lawyer” to refer to everyone who works in legal services who has not passed the bar exam.  

This issue is much more than a word choice.  At best it is careless. At worst it reflects a lack of respect for the contributions that half  the people in legal services make. Either way, we should put an end to the use of the term.

No One Wants to Be Defined in the Negative

I first realized this problem more than 25 years ago when Norm Rubenstein, one of the most revered marketing professionals in law,  joined Orrick as our Chief Marketing Officer. It was a big moment for the firm. We were embracing bold new ideas in the way we presented ourselves to the market; Norm was joining us, along with a celebrated “dream team” he had recruited from other firms, to lead the effort. At the first partner meeting at which Norm unveiled our marketing mission he took me aside to share his disappointment that we referred to his team as “non-lawyers.” No one, he observed, wants to be defined in the negative. We had assembled some of the best people in their field only to define them in that way.

It was a true aha moment for me. One that has been with me ever since and affects my sense of how we should think about the talented people who work in our firms.  And how we should refer to them. 

The Term “Non-Lawyer” Continues to Be Pervasive in the World of Law

Fast forward to the present. Here we are in the 21st century, at a time we all claim is one of unprecedented innovation in law, and yet, across the profession, we continue to call half our people “non-lawyers.”  If you have a degree in computer science from MIT and are leading the firm’s efforts to embrace technology, we call you a “non-lawyer.”  If you have an MBA from the Harvard Business School and are the chief operating officer, earning as much as many partners, you are still a “non-lawyer.”  And certainly if you are among the countless people who do the work of gathering facts and generating documents essential to the practice of law, you are “non-lawyers.”

There is growing sensitivity about this issue among professionals in legal services. Publicly, it arises in nearly all discussions of how we modernize legal services, particularly when we address the need to diversify the perspectives and backgrounds of the workforce.  Privately, legal services professionals are increasingly stung by the negative label and the failure of their colleagues to change it.

We should do better.

Law is the Only Profession that Does This

In what other profession or industry are professionals defined in the negative? Not in medicine. Not in accounting. Not in architecture. Not in education. Not in any.

Why do we do it in law? I can’t think of a good answer.  In part, it is a linguistic habit that requires conscious effort to break.  But I suspect there is more at work–that it reflects a view that only those who hold the title “lawyer” are worthy of doing important work in legal services. That was never so, and as we embrace process design and legal technology, more and more of the mission critical work will be done or managed by other legal service professionals.

Whatever the reason we do it, we need to stop.

Continued Use of the Term “Non-Lawyer” Has Significant Consequences

The “non-lawyer” nomenclature does a disservice to the people who work in legal service.  It is demotivating and disrespectful. Norm Rubenstein was right. 

The “non-lawyer” label also impedes innovation by reinforcing the traditional narrow view of how to deliver legal services.  So long as we think that only lawyers can do the important work, we will be reluctant to permit others to participate.  To achieve real innovation, we need to move in precisely the opposite direction:  to actively look for opportunities to reassign work from lawyers to other professionals and to technology.  

It also reduces our ability to attract essential new participants to legal service. As we modernize, we need to attract more and more intelligent, technologically savvy, and ambitious people to careers in law. It will be more difficult to attract such people to careers in which they are effectively labeled second-class citizens.  Think about it.  Would you want a career that defined you as a “non” something?

We Are All “Legal Service Professionals”

So, what should we call those who work in legal service?  I suggest we call everyone who works in law “legal service professionals.” We can then refer to each person by his/her role: lawyer, project manager, litigation strategy director, marketing director, legal technology director, chief operating officer,  chief financial officer, data analyst, et al

The critical action is to stop bifurcating the workforce into two categories and labeling one of them “non.”

We are all in this together.