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 subject…is 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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