29th May 2024

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Rethinking Legal Terminology: From ‘Nonlawyer’ to ‘Allied Legal Professionals’

8 min read

document search magnifying glass brief memo document review briefs memosIn the wake of the recent Petition for the American Bar Association (ABA) to Cease Using the Term “Nonlawyer,” an important conversation has been sparked regarding the language we use to describe the essential contributors to the legal profession. Inspired by the clarity and respect found in the medical field’s adoption of “allied health professionals,” legal scholar Damien Riehl sheds light on the need for a shift in terminology. Riehl emphasizes the term “nonlawyer” is imprecise, favoring a term like “allied legal professional,” — which more accurately reflects diverse roles and valuable contributions. This article explores Riehl’s insights, discussing how linguistic evolution could reshape our understanding of the legal profession.

Olga Mack: How does the term “allied legal professionals” provide a clearer understanding of the roles and contributions of non-lawyer professionals within the legal field compared to the term “nonlawyer”?

Damien Riehl: One problem with “nonlawyer” is its imprecision:

  • A paralegal is a “nonlawyer”
  • A firm COO and Wharton MBA is a “nonlawyer”
  • A firm PhD data scientist is a “nonlawyer”
  • An Uber driver is a “nonlawyer”
  • A janitor is a “nonlawyer”

The term “allied legal professional” provides much greater conceptual clarity than “nonlawyer” — providing precision regarding the roles and contributions of professionals who contribute to legal work but are not licensed attorneys.

Defining a professional by what they are not (a “nonsomething”) is inherently vague and imprecise. Lawyers are linguistically precise — or at least we should be. We pride ourselves on linguistic accuracy, yet “nonlawyer” lumps together paralegals, legal operations specialists, legal tech experts, Uber drivers, and janitors. Nonlawyer tells us nothing about what roles these professionals actually play.

In contrast, the term “allied legal professional” clearly indicates those who work alongside lawyers to serve clients. It properly recognizes them as professionals with specialized skills that complement and enhance legal services. Similarly, “allied health professionals” like nurses and physician assistants advance the medical field despite not being doctors. They are not “nonphysicians”; they are “allied health professionals.”

So, a term like “allied legal professional” can provide the conceptual clarity that “nonlawyer” lacks, positively identifying those who help deliver legal services. That term is far more precise and informative than “nonlawyer” — which is a “nondefinition.”

OM: Can you elaborate on how the precedent set by the medical field’s adoption of “allied health professionals” might influence the legal profession’s willingness to adopt a similar approach? How has this term been enshrined into statutes and regulations? And how does this precedent serve as a persuasive analog?

DR: The medical field’s widespread adoption of the term “allied health professionals” sets a precedent that might help persuade the legal profession to follow suit. Healthcare usage isn’t merely a matter of terminology; it reflects how the medical community recognizes and values healthcare providers’ contributions.

Among the most compelling aspects of this precedent is how deeply the term “allied health professionals” has become codified in statutes and legislation. The term appears in over 600 pieces of legislation and 200 state and federal statutes, such as:

  • 25 U.S.C. § 1613a “allied health professions”
  • 42 U.S.C. § 295f-2 “allied health positions” 
  • 42 U.S.C. § 280g-4 “allied health professionals”
  • Ca. Health and Saf. Code § 127900 “allied health professionals”
  • Ca. Health and Saf. Code § 32111 “allied health professional staff”
  • Tex. Health and Safety Code § 12.0121 “allied health profession”

This wide statutory incorporation of over 600 instances demonstrates that recognizing allied health professionals isn’t just a matter of preference; it has been adopted by policymakers. The fact that “allied health professionals” appears in hundreds of statutes while “nondoctors” appears in none underscores the power of linguistic precision. 

By clearly defining the contributions of nurses, physician assistants, and other nonphysician providers, the healthcare system’s language reflects the industry’s collaboration to effectively meet patient needs. Allied health professionals are similar to their counterparts in law; allied legal professionals help effectively meet client needs.

The legal profession prides itself on linguistic precision and clarity. Lawyers aren’t vague. “Nonlawyer” is vague. Who would have thought we lawyers would follow physicians’ linguistic lead? Lawyers are supposed to be better at words. But here we are.

By following a similar linguistic path, such as “allied legal professionals,” we can demonstrate our commitment to precise language. We can show that we’re willing to evolve and embrace a more inclusive, collaborative vision of the legal community — using language that accurately reflects our colleague’s contributions.

The healthcare industry provides a roadmap for the law if we choose to follow it. We can adopt a more dignified, precise term for our own allied professionals. By doing so, we can elevate the status of these vital contributors, reflect the reality of how legal services are delivered, and ultimately better serve the public good.

OM: In what ways do you believe the term “allied legal professionals” better respects and recognizes these professionals’ contributions to the legal field, as opposed to the more exclusionary term “nonlawyer”?

DR: Terms like “allied legal professionals” respect and recognize legal professionals’ contributions. Compared to the exclusionary term “nonlawyer,” the term “allied legal professional” is more respectful and accurate.

First, the term “allied legal professional” acknowledges these individuals as professionals in their own right, with specialized skills and expertise that are valuable to the legal field. It demonstrates that they work side-by-side with attorneys in the legal trenches. In contrast, the “nonlawyer” nondefinition merely describes what those professionals are not (not licensed), suggesting their contributions are secondary or less important.

Second, “allied legal professional” recognizes diverse roles. Paralegals, legal operations specialists, e-discovery experts, and others contribute to and enhance legal service delivery. Lumping everyone together as “nonlawyers” — along with janitors, Uber drivers, and clients — erases those distinctions, devaluing their professional contributions.

Third, “allied” highlights our profession’s interconnected and complementary relationships. We’re all part of the same team, working together toward common goals. “Nonlawyer” creates a sense of otherness and division, not collaboration.

Lastly, by paralleling the well-established concept of “allied health professionals,” we can confer similar respect and legitimacy. By accurately reflecting these professionals’ contributions, we increase their standing and credibility in the eyes of both our organizations and the greater public.

A term like “allied legal professionals” provides respect and recognition; “nonlawyer” diminishes and excludes. This change is more than semantics; it’s about fundamentally shifting how we perceive and value our legal community’s vital members.

OM: Given that the term “allied health professionals” is enshrined in over 200 statutes, how do you envision the process of incorporating a similar term for the legal profession into law? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee?

DR: I would wager that the statutory adoption of “allied health professionals,” while meaningful, wasn’t rapid. Incorporating “allied legal professionals” into formal documents can be similarly gradual but meaningful. We can begin with the ABA, expand to other bars (e.g., state, province, territorial), and then to legislatures. 

The legal profession is slow to change — that’s an understatement. This shift will likely see resistance. But the long arc of history can bend toward precision. As the Google Ngram Viewer shows, books’ use of the term “nonlawyer” only began in earnest in the 1970s. And in the quarter century after 2000, societal usage of the term drastically declined. Society has shifted.

The law changes because society changes. Society’s linguistic usage has moved on — away from “nonphysician” and “nonlawyer.” Our statutes, rules, and regulations should similarly reflect that societal change.

OM: How might the adoption of a term like “allied legal professionals” impact the professional identity of those currently labeled as “nonlawyers” and their relationships with lawyers?

DR: This effort isn’t as much about hurt feelings, though workplace kindness matters. This effort isn’t as much about participation trophies, though acknowledging coworkers’ hard work matters. This effort is about linguistic precision. And this is about accurately reflecting our allied professionals’ work.

“Nonlawyer” imprecisely lumps together diverse roles. Does a “nonlawyer” janitor provide the same client value as a “nonlawyer” paralegal? The term “allied legal professionals” is clear and inclusive. It reflects our colleagues’ value to our shared mission. Precise, respectful language facilitates equality and collaboration.

Every day, lawyers need others’ help. A term like “allied legal professionals” can attract talent. The best lawyers acknowledge how much our success depends on our allied legal professionals’ talents. Changing words helps change culture.

OM: What strategies would you suggest for promoting and implementing the use of “allied legal professionals” or a similar term within the legal community and its governing bodies?

DR: There are two ways to effectuate change: 1.) formal changes (e.g., rule changes) and 2.) informal changes (e.g., industry and workplace dialogue). We should do both.

We hope the ABA acknowledges that we should replace “nonlawyer” with whatever term the ABA determines is more precise. An ABA task force should explore alternative terms and make recommendations. Once the ABA selects a term, it could amend its model rules and policies to reflect the change.

But even without a formal rule change, the ABA’s process and discussions can help change norms. The ABA’s platform can raise awareness about the importance of linguistic precision. As a result, lawyers might refrain from using “nonlawyer,” favoring “allied legal professional,” or the shortened “allied professional.”

We lawyers don’t need formal changes to improve our culture. We lead by example. Our organizations — our firms, legal departments, and bar associations — can adopt linguistic precision. We can educate our stakeholders about our rationale. Grassroots efforts shift norms.

Of course, formal changes can also reflect our already-changed culture. Again, “nonlawyer” has sharply declined since 2000. As society embraces more precise language, the ABA should align its rules with our long-changed norms. Formal changes can codify our cultural shift. By formalizing the adoption of a term like “allied legal professionals,” the ABA can ensure that the legal profession’s governing documents reflect its values.

We should embrace linguistic precision, moving away from the outdated and imprecise term “nonlawyer,” and instead adopting a more accurate and respectful term like “allied legal professional.” Just as the medical field has recognized and codified the contributions of “allied health professionals,” the legal community can similarly reflect how legal services are delivered, elevating the linguistic status of vital contributors. By initiating formal and informal shifts within our governing bodies and workplaces, we can pave the way for a more collaborative and inclusive profession — where all members are valued for their expertise and contributions. Let’s redefine our terminology and reaffirm our profession’s commitment to recognition, respect, and linguistic precision. 

Olga MackOlga V. Mack is a Fellow at CodeX, The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and a Generative AI Editor at law.MIT. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board SeatFundamentals of Smart Contract Security, and  Blockchain Value: Transforming Business Models, Society, and Communities. She is working on three books: Visual IQ for Lawyers (ABA 2024), The Rise of Product Lawyers: An Analytical Framework to Systematically Advise Your Clients Throughout the Product Lifecycle (Globe Law and Business 2024), and Legal Operations in the Age of AI and Data (Globe Law and Business 2024). You can follow Olga on LinkedIn and Twitter @olgavmack.


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