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.