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:
— Right Brain Law (@rightbrainlaw) July 15, 2014
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.