What  do we call (what I shudder to mention as) “non lawyers”?

One of the interesting by products of the increased use of technology, collaboration and disruption is the panoply of business professionals now serving the legal profession from MBA’s, marketing experts, IT folks and innovators. These professionals and others play an integral role in and for many lawyers either as employees or outsourced resources.


Given the innovation and creativity now required to succeed, these folks will be even more valuable in the future.

Ahh but notice I didn’t use the dreaded term “non lawyers” or the slightly less offensive term “staff” in describing these folks.

I learned this the hard way. For several years, I have been an active member of the Law Practice Division of the ABA. The mission of the Division is “to investigate, evaluate, develop, and disseminate information and techniques which will make the legal services delivery team more effective, competent, ethical, and responsive to the needs of clients and the public.”

So as you might expect from this mission statement the Division is composed of a diverse group of people. Some are practicing lawyers. Some are non-practicing lawyers. Many are entrepreneurs who have done amazing things with legal technology, some of which we use every day. They just happened to never go to law school.

At one of the early meetings, I happened to say something like “for the non-lawyers in the room…” Big mistake. I immediately knew something was wrong by the silence and stares. Afterwards, one of the more forgiving members of the committee (and one of the most innovative and successful people in the space) came up to me and said, “I am assuming you meant no harm. But when you say non-lawyers I hear you saying I’m a lawyer and you’re not. As in I’m important and have something to offer and you don’t. Its offensive.”

When you say non-lawyers I hear you saying I’m a lawyer and you’re not. As in I’m important and have something to offer and you don’t.

When I came back to our office, I asked some of our professionals what they’d thought expecting to hear its no big deal, it doesn’t bother us. Instead, they all bristled. One said “I have been fighting this for years without much success”. Our COO said “if its all the same to you, I’d prefer not to be called a “non” anything.

So as I started working through this issue, I discovered that there are roadblocks in referring to these professionals as anything other than “non lawyers”. Some of these roadblocks are thrown up by, how shall I say it, the more arrogant lawyers who look down on anyone who doesn’t have a law degree and practices law. Some roadblocks stem from the notion that using anything other than the term “non-lawyers” for all the professionals that work for lawyers who happen to not have a law degree somehow might create confusion. Might somehow mislead clients or others outside the firm they were dealing with lawyers when they weren’t. Or that one of these professionals was trying to practice law without a license so to speak. Some roadblocks just come from people like me who mean no ill will but who don’t think before they talk. Isn’t that how unconscious bias always manifests itself?

Some firms did compromise and officially, at least, started calling these people euphemistically and all inclusively as “staff”.

But while the term “staff” is not meant to be anti-inclusive, it certainly can be.

“Staff” covers a wide group of people. Everyone who is a “non-lawyer”. So the COO is staff. The CFO, who may have an MBA from Harvard, is staff. The head of IT and marketing departments are staff. So are all the administrative assistants and even the runners. Lumping all these together with the word and concept of staff is a disservice to all and fails to recognize the value and type of contributions.

I was discussing the issue recently with one of my partners and he (yes I know, that’s another issue) asked me a question I had to think about a bit: “well, what do you call these people at your Law Practice Division? (Yes, I didn’t like the term “these people” much either). I didn’t have a good answer on the spot. I couldn’t seem to recall exactly how we did refer to the LPD professional members.

A couple of days later it hit me why I couldn’t easily answer the question: we don’t refer to them as anything. They are what they are: one owns a business, one is a venture capitalist, one an entrepreneur. Since we are all equals volunteering to advance the LPD mission, we have no need to label anyone as a lawyer or non lawyer or anything else for that matter. They are teammates.

Colleagues. Professionals. When we do use titles, its by what we do not whether we are lawyer or non.

It struck me that this is where we are missing the point. The question is not what we call our colleagues but whether we value and respect them. Most professionals working with lawyers want to be involved, they want to be part of the team. They want to be treated and thought of as equals providing value by their disciplines and experience.

My more enlightened view-and theirs-is that many of these people are professionals who happen work on the business side of the legal space. Their contribution is every bit as valuable if not more than mine and I want them to know and feel that.

If we have this mindset, now we can get to work and really do something great.

PS. Here is a link to an interesting take by Heather Morse on just this subject.

Photo Attribution: Jack Dorsey via Flickr, Rum Bucolic Ape via Flickr