5th December 2023

The term “non-lawyer” has long been used to describe individuals who are not licensed attorneys but work in a Legal Professional role. While this term may seem innocuous at first glance, it carries with it a host of negative implications that can undermine the inclusivity and collaboration necessary for a thriving legal profession. (We bet you have never heard a nurse referred to as a non-doctor, have you?)

Legal Professionals play crucial roles in ensuring the smooth operation of the legal department and are indispensable…

With many years of experience working in the legal field from law firms to one of the most well-known companies in the world, the authors of this article came together at the recent Summit by the Sea legal operations conference and discovered how they both despise the use of this condescending term.

The use of “non-lawyer” is a trigger word that we pick up on way too often coming from around our community. We quickly erupted into a “Wait, you too?” conversation at the table. We agreed that it creates a connotation of “less-than” based on titles and roles; and we bonded as Legal Professionals with a strong desire to engage the Legal Professional community itself to sunset this term.

In this article, we will explore the adverse effects of the term “non-lawyer” that were raised in this discussion and argue for why it’s time to retire this divisive label in favor of a more empowering “Legal Professional” for the highly skilled and amazing population that makes up paralegals, legal assistants, legal operations professionals, legal marketers, legal researchers, contracts managers, legal technology experts, legal program managers, legal administrative staff, etc.

Reinforces a Hierarchy

The use of the term “non-lawyer” creates an artificial hierarchy within the legal profession. It implicitly suggests that only licensed attorneys hold value or expertise within the legal realm, while others are relegated to a subordinate status.

This hierarchy can breed a culture of exclusivity, alienating those who work alongside lawyers and diminishing their contributions to the legal ecosystem.

Undermines Collaboration

Collaboration is essential in the legal profession, and the term “non-lawyer” can impede the development of cohesive legal teams. It perpetuates the idea that attorneys are the sole decision-makers and experts, which can lead to missed opportunities for input and innovation from individuals with diverse skills and perspectives.

This lack of collaboration can stifle creativity and hinder the legal profession’s ability to adapt to changing times.

Stigmatizes Valuable Roles

Legal Professionals play crucial roles in ensuring the smooth operation of the legal department and are indispensable to the legal process. However, labeling them as “non-lawyers” diminishes the significance of their contributions, which can lead to a lack of recognition and potential underappreciation of their work.

Inhibits Diversity and Inclusion

The legal profession has made strides in recent years to become more diverse and inclusive. However, the use of the term “non-lawyer” can inadvertently reinforce barriers to entry for individuals from diverse backgrounds, as it may discourage them from pursuing careers in legal support roles.

By creating this divide within law firms and legal teams, the work that a company or firm has done to strengthen its bond internally is immediately disrupted.

Fails to Reflect Reality

The legal profession is evolving, and the roles within it are expanding and diversifying. Legal Professionals have become increasingly important in the modern legal landscape; they work closely with lawyers and contribute significantly to the success of legal projects and operations. Labeling these dedicated high achievers as “non-lawyers” fails to reflect the reality of their contributions and expertise.

Specifically, when it comes to the future state of legal teams, the separation this term creates contradicts the goal to be successful and future proofed.

The term “non-lawyer” needs to go

There is simply no justification for its use in the industry. One can only mentally place someone who continues to use this futile word in the smoking section of an airplane from a culture relevance perspective. It’s time to move forward.

We are all “non” lots of things, but pointing that out for anything else would be more obviously recognized as degrading. The term’s harmful drawbacks cannot be ignored.

Embracing a positive term for our vast community will ultimately benefit the entire legal profession as well as our clients. It’s time to leave the term “non-lawyer” behind and empower our Legal Professional community to stand up and be recognized for the expertise and partnership they bring to the field.

So, next time you would like to refer to a confident, articulate, driven, superhero in your legal department or law firm who happens to not be an attorney, please remember to address them as your Legal Professional partner.

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DeAnna Papedis, Legal Professional

DeAnna has been a member of Google’s legal team for the past 18 years. She leads the program management and operations teams that support Google Legal’s commercial contracts and product counsel teams. In this role, she advises on Legal’s input into multiple systems and she oversees an array of processes, programs, and projects across a 600+ organization of legal team members. Prior to Google, DeAnna spent 12 years as a Legal Professional in large corporate law firms.

Rich Bracken, Legal Professional

Rich is an award-winning global keynote speaker, consultant, and media personality who is also a notable thought leader in the legal industry. He routinely consults law firms, legal associations, and in-house teams across the country on topics such as emotional intelligence, leadership, client service, and communication.

A former in-house legal marketing and business development executive, he has worked with firms to differentiate their strategy and brand to grow revenue through client service and external marketing. You can learn more about him and his services for legal teams at Richbracken.com.

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