Non-Lawyers Are People Too

I did a quick and unscientific bit of research a couple of days ago, comparing use of the terms non-lawyer and non-doctor in the Twitter-verse.

It seems that for the most part (on that day, at least), recent tweets referencing “non-doctor” were focused on the television serial, Doctor Who. I noted a few exceptions, pointing to other related professions, especially physiotherapists, but those tweets were from tweeters who did not appear to represent the medical profession, and in fact, appeared to be part of the client-group.

On the other hand, I found references to “non-lawyer” only in tweets from lawyers, legal media and legal professional associations and societies. I did not note any “non-lawyer” references made by those outside or unrelated to the legal profession.

Though wholly unreliable as proof of anything (I am, after all, a non-scientist), the results of this brief review confirmed my suspicions:

1. That only lawyers and those affiliated with the legal profession refer to those on the outside as “non-lawyers;” and

2. That use of this sort of exclusionary language may be unique to the legal profession.

The term non-lawyer is used to describe a person who is not a lawyer. The problem I have with the term relates to my first post here in which I wrote about the importance of the words we choose to describe others, in that context related to gender.

If we as lawyers only look at the world through a binary lens, then there are just two kinds of people: people who are lawyers and people who are not lawyers. This sort of dichotomous approach lends itself to defensive thinking, we we focus on finding ways to maintain the separation between us and them, rather than making efforts to break down barriers between people.

Of course, many of our treasured legal traditions effectively support this view. For example, there is a clear division in our courtrooms to separate those within the profession from those outside, and the robes we don for superior court proceedings further accentuate the distinction.

We know that increasingly our legal system is not providing effective access to justice to those without significant means. While it is perhaps a small point, I suggest that using more inclusive language to describe those among us who are not lawyers, and especially those who are not lawyers but work to support the rule of law and advocate for those who have no voice, could be effective in finding creative solutions to break down some of the barriers that impede access to justice in Canada.

How we view the problem often dictates the solutions offered. As Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

Non-lawyers include our friends and neighbours, those who provide us with services of all kinds, most of our clients, advocates before many administrative tribunals, court translators and support staff, law enforcement and investigators, as well as those who represent themselves in legal proceedings, whether by choice or by necessity. This is not a homogenous group, and we do them all a disservice by lumping all together under a single, exclusionary category.

Lawyers know that words matter, and choosing the wrong word can have costly implications. Whether drafting documents, delivering oral argument, negotiating a settlement or delivering advice to our clients, we are trained to carefully select the words that most effectively convey our message.

If our message to those who cannot effectively exercise their legal rights because of their socioeconomic or personal circumstances, or due to systemic barriers that prevent access is a defence of the status quo, then perhaps “non-lawyer” is the appropriate term to use. But if we actually care about the rule of law, and about whether individuals can access and enforce their legal rights, then we need to be more careful in our choice of words so as to create an inclusionary environment where the law can truly work for everyone.


  1. Lesley Midzain

    Interesting piece. In addition to resisting the use of the term “non-lawyers”, perhaps we should also resist thinking that we’ll be any more inclusive by looking at things from the “client’s” perspective. For example, presumably in an effort to be more inclusive, the CBA Futures dialogue regularly references the client, as in these sample tweets from #CBAfutures:

    • “What are your legal clients looking for that they didn’t request 10 years ago?”
    • “Clients want to pay based on who did the job – no senior rates for junior work, our #CBA Futures study found.”

    With up to 70% of civil litigants and 40% or more of family litigants unrepresented in our courts*, there are many, many individuals (the “non-clients”) who have a considerable stake in the future of the legal profession but who would not be included in a lawyers’ debate about what clients want. Echoing Karen’s point, we do “need to be more careful with our choice of words” when engaging in this debate and creating solutions.

    (*from Vancouver Sun/Ian Mulgrew report on the findings of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project (7MAY2013): )

  2. Excellent point. There is no one size fits all category for clients, and indeed, litigants representing themselves are at once both “non-lawyers” and “non-clients.”
    In terms of access to justice, perhaps we should be talking about legal service providers, including lawyers, paralegals, advocates, online document services and more and legal service consumers. The consumers have a range of diverse needs, from information to advice to assistance with document preparation to advocacy support and more. These needs are already met by a wide range of legal service providers and it is the individual consumer who determines how best to meet their specific need within their specific budget.
    Some legal service consumers are encountering systemic barriers to meeting their needs, at the same time as some legal service providers are encountering barriers of their own to delivering services in innovative ways. It remains my hope that the CBA Futures conversation will be able to address all of these barriers, with a view to bringing forward creative and consumer-focused solutions to our regulators.

  3. As a non-lawyer, non-client with considerable experience in the courtroom I can’t pass on the opportunity to contribute to this subject.

    Doctors don’t refer to non-doctors because there’s no circumstance analogous to lawyers facing SRL’s in legal actions. It’s a situation unique to the legal business.

    However, if you want to consider what choice of terminology reveals about the legal culture then you have a goldmine to explore. Currently, I’m looking at the use of various terms for an issue of great concern to me: what I’m calling “gatekeeper devices”. Another non-lawyer yesterday brought to my attention “triable issue”, while someone else recently had discovered the delightful “facially plausible” (actually it was “facially implausible”). The first gatekeeper term I had encountered was “prima facie case”. There are others. I’ve also been told that I have failed to present “sufficient evidence of an apparent case”, and “a reasonable cause of action” and that my action was “frivolous”, “vexatious” and even “an abuse of process”. Then there are the “clearly irrational” cases. I don’t know that I’ve exhausted the list yet.

    Why are there are so many terms that mean essentially the same thing (in that they have the same result)? I think it reveals a very serious problem.