I’m a Non-Engineer

It happened again yesterday in the CBA Futures Twitterchat – the term “non-lawyer” once again reared its ugly head. Granted, it was a Twitter chat with 140 character limits but even so, there must better ways to describe the vast majority of the population who are not licensed to practice law.

I’ve written here previously on my views of this term; since then, I’ve only become more deeply entrenched in my point of view, to the point where use of the term now grinds in my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. (Incidentally, does anyone under 30 even know what that sounds like?)

Our society is not neatly divided into those who are lawyers and those who are not. The term, as used yesterday, was in the context of a conversation on how lawyers can learn to “play nicely” with other professions and professionals. I’m confident that trying to do so while clinging to such a dichotomous worldview is unlikely to bring about the desired benefits either to lawyers or those they represent.

There was a suggestion from @RightBrainLaw that how lawyers view themselves is part of the problem in getting lawyers to collaborate:

This is also the problem with the dualistic view of the world as lawyers and “non-lawyers” – it’s ripe with the odour of superiority over those who are not lawyers. As every lawyer knows, the words we choose and use matter. Choosing a label that defines others by what or who they are not, carries with it the implication that a lesser value is placed on those who are “not.” Who among us wants to be known for who what or who we are not? (For the record, in addition to being a non-engineer, I’m also a non-brain surgeon as well as a non-astronaut.)

The culture shift that will enable lawyers to collaborate and work effectively with other professions must begin with the understanding that not only are we not the smartest in the room, we’re also not the most creative or the most innovative and certainly not the most cost effective.

Nonetheless, lawyers have great skill in advocacy, expertise in drafting and negotiation and more to offer those seeking to prevent or address legal problems. Where those problems have dimensions broader than pure legal issues, we must be able to relate as equals to professionals from other fields who can assist us and those we represent. If we are careful in choosing our words and the labels we apply to those we work with and for, we will find that we can begin to build bridges instead of trenches.


  1. Totally don’t understand this. There is sensitivity around thinking of people who aren’t lawyers as non-lawyers? The term only comes up when describing legal stuff, and makes total sense. If someone is explaining to me how to build a bridge, engineer/non-engineer is startling relevant. Why should this be different?

  2. Serge, “If someone is explaining to me how to build a bridge, engineer/non-engineer is startling relevant” depends on what they’re explaining about the building of the bridge. Building a bridge is a collaborative effort in most cases requiring architect, engineers, craftsmen/women, labourers (and sometimes politicians). Each playing important roles and making important contributions.

    “The term only comes up when describing legal stuff” – I believe legal stuff can also require a collaborative effort depending on what’s being discussed. Investigators, auditors, paralegals, librarians can also play a part in legal stuff. Or, are you just referring to the translation of the esoteric legal language used by barristers, solicitors and judges?

    I believe Ms Dyck’s post is about the need to look at “legal stuff” in a more collaborative way as opposed to the lawyers vs. non-lawyers dichotomy. Of course, this is only my interpretation.

  3. Hmm… I definitely agree that, where possible, we should be collaborating in an open and non-hierarchical way. When we are discussing the delivery of legal services, however, (and particularly in jurisductions other than Ontario that do not allow a wide scope of practice for paralegals) the lawyer/non-lawyer distinction is essential.

    If we’re discussing access to justice, etc. then lawyers are one tiny part of the equation, and the dichotomy is odd and inappropriate. If we’re discussing things that, by law, only lawyers are permitted to do, it’s convenient and necessary.

  4. “it’s ripe with the odour of superiority over those who are not lawyers.”

    Well that would be a terrible thing, if someone who has years of education or expertise in a particular field points that out to someone with neither.

    When I go to my doctor and offer my medical opinion, do you think he or she is worried about offending me by pointing out that I haven’t been to medical school?

    If a non-engineer is asked to offer their opinion on whether a steel beam is sufficiently designed to carry a certain load, I certainly hope that anyone within earshot feels safe in pointing out that the person is not an engineer. Or is that too ripe with the odour of superiority?

  5. I am a “non-lawyer” who works in the legal industry. At networking events, I often introduce myself this way out of a feeling of insecurity and self-consciousness around so many lawyers. Rather than embarrass myself ten minutes into a conversation by having to ask what a particular legal word means, I classify myself as an “other” right from the get-go.

    My interpretation of Karen’s piece is not necessarily that lawyers feel superior to the rest of us, but that many “non-lawyers”, especially non-lawyers working closely with lawyers, feel inferior, and therefore unwilling to contribute to the discussion about the future of law.

    As Karen explains, I don’t enjoy being classified / classifying myself according to the knowledge I lack, but it’s always seemed the easiest way of explaining that I do not have a legal background. However, I like the idea of ridding this term from our vocabularies and focusing instead on our skills. This one small step might help encourage Communications, Business and Education-oriented people working in the legal industry to more confidently participate in the conversation about the future of law in Canada.

  6. Lawyers need to keep their feet on the ground and their forehead out of their fundament, that’s true. We do need some humility and to acknowledge that on becoming a lawyer, we do not transcend human fallibility and foibles, and that we do not always deserve the deference and respect we sometimes receive for our station.

    We do also need to distinguish between those who are or are not legally trained and fully insured members-in-good-standing of law societies. The duality exists: either you were called to the bar and took the oath or you didn’t. The term “non-lawyer” covers you if you didn’t. There is no simpler way, except the phrase “not a lawyer.”

    Irony: the Twitterchat to which the author links in the lede is all about helping lawyers work well with and treat with respect those-who-are-not-licensed-to-practice-law-but-who-count-as-humans-as-much-as-lawyers-at-least. The whole point seems to be to recognize that lawyer-to-lawyer interactions work differently from interactions between lawyers and… whatever you’d call them.

  7. “This is also the problem with the dualistic view of the world as lawyers and “non-lawyers” – it’s ripe with the odour of superiority over those who are not lawyers.”

    Well, it’s ripe with the odour of superiority over those who are not lawyers only if you’re a lawyer. Among non-lawyer, the distinction between non-lawyers and lawyers is much the same as the distinction between humans and scum-sucking sewer rats, so I doubt they’re much fussed by it.

    Look, in all seriousness, there’s a reason that lawyers might feel “superior” to non-lawyers (generally) or non-lawyers might feel “inferior” to lawyers, let’s face it it, most lawyers much more accomplished than the rest of society. (As an aside, I’m not sure “superior”/”inferior” are really the right words, but I’m struggling to think of what better words would be). They’re generally smarter and they’re generally more articulate than their fellow Canadians. It’s the same reasons that brain surgeons and engineers all think they’re masters of the universe – they are (as an aside, no lawyer thinks they’re superior to the brain surgeons or engineers- those guys and girls are smart).

    Granted, that’s a generalization. There are lots of dumb lawyers, and lots of smart non-lawyers (apart from just brain surgeons or engineers). And the fact that lawyers are generally pretty smart people doesn’t make them gods (as any lawyer’s assistant can tell you or as is apparent in the weekly disciplinary reports in the ORs). Still, as a generalization, it holds.

    In any event, I don’t see why we should be fussed by the fact that the label of lawyer carrying with it implications of “superiority”. If it does, it’s for a reason. Frankly, I’d be much more concerned if that weren’t true and people did actually think of us as scum-sucking sewer rats.

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful post Karen. I support your views and your reaction to the term “non-lawyer”, particularly in the mediation field. Mediators comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and those diverse experiences enrich their ability to assist people with problem-solving. On the Mediate BC mediator rosters (Civil and Family) approximately 60% have a legal background (not all practicing lawyers) and 40% come from other backgrounds. Traditionally, the field in BC has referred to “lawyer-mediators” and “non-lawyer mediators”. These terms truly rankle. Some of the best mediators I know come from backgrounds other than law. And, from my own experience, I know that my legal training creates some significant barriers to effective mediation skills. It is beneficial to be able to call on mediators from a variety of backgrounds in order to meet the unique needs of the problem and the parties. These are differences that should be celebrated and not caught in a lawyer/non-lawyer dichotomy.

  9. In one-on-one conversation, I am a lawyer, you are a librarian/ engineer/ brain surgeon/ whatever.

    When talking about groups of people, if one of the groups is people who have taken the Hippocratic Oath, then doctors and non-doctors make sense as categories. Just as lawyers and non-lawyers make sense as categories when discussing things lawyers do.

    Ms Dyck’s argument would be a lot more persuasive if, instead of merely calling for the death of the term “non-lawyer” she had suggested reasonable alternatives. Lawyers and real people? Lawyers and the rest of Canadian society? Lawyers and legal civilians? or perhaps Lawyers and clients, ex-clients, future-clients, people-who-should-be-clients-but-are-self-represented-instead and the rare-individuals-who-never-need-legal-advice?

    Had she looked at the alternatives, Ms Dyck might have decided that “non-lawyer” seems the best of a lot of bad choices.

  10. Jonathan Westphal

    “lawyers” and “normal people” ;-)

  11. “Our society is not neatly divided into those who are lawyers and those who are not.” I think the law societies would beg to differ on that point. What with their member categories and enabling legislation saying only members can engage in the for profit practice of law.

    I have worked with paralegals and patent agents and trademark agents many of whom had years of experience, multiple advanced degrees, and were extremely knowledgeable on the legal requirements applicable to the work they do. But, as discussed by a number of commentators above, there are situations where you clearly have a distinction between lawyers and people who are not lawyers, non-lawyers if you will.

    Non-lawyers do not have the same legal duties and responsibilities as lawyers in some situations, nor do they benefit from the same rights and privileges (such as the ability to represent parties or classes of parties in certain legal proceedings, a far broader scope of privilege concerning legal advise provided, etc.).

    As also discussed above, that isn’t necessarily a positive thing from the lawyer’s point of view. Lawyer jokes rely heavily on a dichotomy between lawyers and non-lawyers, but rarely in the lawyer’s favour.

  12. This issue of labels could probably bear a lot more inquiry, but for now what I can offer is a practical perspective. I’m sure I’ve called myself a “non-lawyer” many times over the years that I’ve dealt with lawyers. And now I have the opportunity to go to court and argue about what “non-lawyers” are entitled to do in a courtroom with a lawyer who has been retained by the Law Society of BC.

    The case (a judicial review, not a lawsuit) has been filed. We are trying to get a hearing date, but it now looks like September is not on and so I’m anticipating it will be in October. I’m not convinced that the LSBC wants it to happen at all. Indeed, they have tried overt intimidation (including a very ill-considered telephone call to my associate) to convince us to abandon the matter.

    The LSBC’s filed Response – http://www.uncharted.ca/images/users/ssigurdur/2014_lsbc_response.pdf – is well worth reading. Compare what it claims about the “facts” to what I had already shared with the public – http://enmasse.ca/forums/viewtopic.php?t=13542&start=217 – and I think any truly competent lawyer can see that we are in for a very interesting hearing.

    How will the bench ultimately decide to characterize me (i.e., how will I be identified in the written judgement)? If the Law Society prevails I may be characterized as a “vexatious/querulous lay advocate”. I see my role as representing the public interest. I will argue that any citizen is entitled to do that. I will also argue that I am fully entitled to act as the advocate for my associate whose name happens to be on this action – so long as I’m not being paid. I will even suggest that I could be identified in the judgement as “counsel” because that is not a term that the legal profession owns. I distinguish it from “lawyer”, “barrister”, “solicitor” or “attorney”.

    BTW, the comparison to the situation with other “professions” doesn’t work for me. The building of a bridge for example is not an adversarial process and it is inconceivable that a non-engineer is going to be allowed (or even want) to do what a qualified structural engineer does in the building of a bridge (though a non-engineer might conceivably qualify if the project is demolishing a bridge).

  13. Julie Macfarlane

    Great post Karen. I am dismayed by the defences made of the idiotic “non-lawyer” expression. How many other professions have a special put-down term for people who are not them? As Karen says, “non-engineer”? I would add – non-dentist? Non-Architect? Non-mediator?

    The “non-lawyer” expression is not about establishing that I have a law degree and you do not, or that I have a licence to practice law and you cannot. It is about asserting our infinite superiority over the “nons” – as any “non” who mixes in with a crowd of lawyers will tell you – by maintaining the “clan” that you cannot belong to as a “non”.

    The “non-lawyer” expression is a critical part of the law school myth (bought by a disturbing number of law students and professors) that what they learn at law school (legal knowledge,reasoning, analysis, etc) is special and oh-so-different from and superior to other types of expertise.

    Of course lawyers have particular and important abilities and capacities (or they should, given what they are paid). But to render everyone else who is not “one of us” a “non” is a linguistic device (and words are very important here) to assert and maintain status and control. This is an outdated and ineffective strategy that we shall be increasingly called on by savvy 21st century justice consumers.

    If we would like to hear fewer lawyer jokes, maybe we should be willing to look at how we set ourselves up for this by our assertions of superior difference (compared with other professions, not just to those who are not lawyers), and our sense of entitlement (including hanging on to the ubiquitous “non-lawyer” expression)?

  14. “How many other professions have a special put-down term for people who are not them? As Karen says, “non-engineer”? I would add – non-dentist? Non-Architect? Non-mediator?”

    I think the idea of having an in group and out group distinction is hardly unique to lawyers. Examples that come to mind:

    Military where each service group tends to have an expression for members of the other groups, as well as the general military vs civilian distinction.

    Emergency responders (police/fire/ambulance), with the term civilian used to refer to anyone who is not an ER responder.

    Union members (brothers & sisters) vs management (or other less flattering terms).

  15. It is not a myth that we have specialized education and knowledge. It is not a myth that we have knowledge and judgment that arises from years of education and experience.

    Go to your doctor and tell them that your knowledge just as good as his or hers. Call yourself a savvy 21-st century medical consumer. Refer to medical school and licensing as a clan designed to protect the insiders. Tell them that you think they’re “oh so special” because they went to “medical school”. Let us know how that goes.