Take the Pledge: We Are Legal Service Professionals, not Lawyers and non-Lawyers

Take the Pledge: We Are Legal Service Professionals, not Lawyers and non-Lawyers

I remember the first time someone pointed out to me – it was the legal sociologist Craig McEwen whose work on dispute resolution and lawyers I found inspirational – that lawyers were one of the only professions that had a special name for those who were “not” them.

The only other occupations that we could come up with then which assign a special term to the “other” (not them) were the military (the rest of us are “civilians”); and the clergy (we are “laity”). And neither of these terms include the insidious “non” (as in “non-lawyer”).

Leaving aside words that describe those receiving “services” from professionals – for example patients, or clients – which could of course include members of that profession (lawyers may be clients, doctors may be patients), these were two of only three special names we could identify for “others” who are not members of the particular profession or occupation.

The third was “non-lawyer.”

The impact of this revelation on me – because that is exactly what it was and still is – was profound. I ask every law school class I teach if they have noticed this peculiar word usage (invariably they have not). I have returned to this theme – who’s in, who’s out, in the battle for legitimacy in dispute resolution – over and over in research projects ranging from self-represented litigations to mandatory mediation (by “non-lawyers”?) to religious divorce, to collaborative family law.

I believe to this day that this word usage says something so essential about the profession of law that until we can face it, it overshadows our efforts at change. That is, until we can evaluate what having a special, defined-in-the-negative term for those who are not “us” says about how we see “us”.

But it’s just an expression!

I don’t think that we really need to spend too much time on this objection to my argument. We know how important words are in shaping our consciousness. (I am not going to repeat the most obvious and egregious examples that relate to gender and race.)

“Because words matter. When we think we are using language, language is using us….language is like a loaded gun: It can be fired intentionally, but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally. The terms in which we talk about something shape the way we think about it – and even what we see…(T)his is how language works. It invisibly molds our way of thinking about people, actions, and the world around us.” (Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, 1998).

Others do it too!

Perhaps dentists and architects and therapists harbor resentments occasionally approaching contempt towards those who do not possess their professional qualification. Many people over the years have pointed out to me that professional exclusivity is not the purview of lawyers alone. And I agree.

But wait – a special word (featured in the Collins English Dictionary)? Spoken out loud? Seriously? At least these others keep their mutterings about “non-dentists” and “non-architects” to themselves.

“Non-lawyer” is a term attached constantly to those who are not us (a search on the latest issue of Canadian Lawyer returns 105 results). And of course, it is framed in the negative – and who wants their talents and qualifications to be framed in the negative? (see Stop Calling Legal Service Professionals “Non-Lawyers” Ralph Baxter)

But we are different!

The most common objection to the “stop calling people ‘non-lawyers’” campaign is the most embarrassing one – the “but we are different” rationale. Yes, and so are dentists, architects, therapists and so on – different, but not better.

Because let’s face it, the real reason for the overworked use of the expression “non-lawyer” is embedded in our conviction that only lawyers can do a range of things – from giving grounded legal advice (perfectly reasonable), to drafting an actionable inventory of agreements, filling out a form, or standing before a judge. Tellingly, the expression “non-lawyer” appears no less than 28 times in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Rules of Professional Conduct.

This is “non-lawyer as bogeyman”. It is outdated and it is arrogant overreach. And- as we increasingly work alongside other professionals (thus enabling us to deliver justice services far better than we do now) – it is downright embarrassing.

Returning to Ralph Baxter’s excellent blog earlier this week:

“The “non-lawyer” label also impedes the progress we need to achieve, by reinforcing the narrow way we think about who can do the tasks that make up “legal service.” So long as we think that only lawyers can do the important work, we are reluctant to permit others to participate; our default assumption is that a lawyer must do the task.”

Take the pledge

From now on at NSRLP, we shall eschew the expression “non-lawyer”-in all our resources, publications, and presentations.

Instead we shall adopt Baxter’s suggestion of “…legal service professionals (and)  (and) then refer to each person by his/her specific role: lawyer, legal technician, system engineer, marketing manager, billing coordinator, et al. The key is to stop bifurcating the workforce into two categories and labeling one of them ‘non.’” (my italics)

Take the pledge with us? Goodbye “non-lawyer” – hello “legal service professionals” (all of us).


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Comments (3)

  • bcaptijn

    Good ideas here. Thank you.
    I was surprised, as an SRL to find myself listed on my court documents by the defendant as ‘unrepresented’ (LAT and Small Claims Court). I had always thought I was ‘self-represented’. When I asked a lawyer about this, he just smiled and replied ‘that’s the way its done’. Again, no one represents themselves in court because they like it, its a financial necessity in most cases. But that doesn’t mean to most of us ‘unrepresented’.

    May 26, 2015 at 1:40 pm
  • Shelly

    I have a lot of respect for the legal profession – but not a lot of respect for labels that attempt to identify others as ‘less than’. There are circumstances in which self-representation makes sense and we ‘lay people’ can research case law examples to support our case. We all also know that a lot of the research work and compiling of documents for filing is not actually done by the lawyer. He or she has his ‘non-lawyers’ do that work. Good points being made.

    May 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm
  • 5 Ways to Talk about A2J Over a Summer BBQ | The National Self-Represented Litigants Project

    […] look great on paper will not work in practice (see our hugely popular Take the Pledge initiative (https://representingyourselfcanada.com/2015/05/26/take-the-pledge-we-are-legal-service-professionals-…: eschewing the expression “non-lawyer” in favor of “legal services […]

    July 3, 2015 at 1:50 pm

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