My Personal Crusade to Cease All Use of the Word "Non-lawyer!"

A couple of Twitter “tweets” I saw today referenced a lawyer disciplined for allowing “non-lawyers” to do something that only a licensed attorney should have done.  I really dislike the “n-l” word so suggested in my reply “tweet” that surely we could all find more respectful words to use when referring to someone who does not practice law for a living. 

For those already wondering why this word irritates me, please know that I understand lots of folks (including attorney regulatory agencies) use it solely to help describe someone’s role in a law office.  I get that, but unfortunately, I have also personally witnessed far too many others who use the “n-l” word in a derogatory manner.

My distaste for the word goes way back to my years as a legal assistant/paralegal/law office mgr. prior to earning my law degree.  In those times I learned that more than a few attorneys treated support staff disrespectfully and like second class citizens.  And all these years later, I’m still very alert to anything and everything that shows disrespect to our staff support members.  I’ve been out of law school 21 years now, a law office management adviser for almost 20 and have practiced law as well….and yet sadly, I still see evidence in some offices of demeaning and demoralizing behavior toward staff (e.g. a/k/a office bullies).  In my consulting work, legal work, my role as a mediator and in my seminars, any one that knows me knows I have always been an outspoken and strong voice for the proper treatment of legal support personnel…bottom line is that I have been there – done that! And also because of my years as a staff member and because of those with whom I’ve had the pleasure to know and work beside since, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the enormous roles they play in a lawyers’ and law firm’s success.  I will continue advocating for the respectful and professional treatment of support staff as long as there’s breath in this ol’ body.

The truth is – whether we like it or not – the old two tier structure is indeed alive and well in too many law offices (attorneys who see themselves way up “there” on a pedestal and all the “n-ls” waaaaay down the ladder beneath the lofty esquires and “esquettes”).  It’s in these toxic offices where those in authority falsely begin to think (and act) like they are some how better than their lowly underlings.  This form of arrogance and the “I’m better than you” attitudes wreak havoc for workplace morale, productivity and stability.

When we are talked down to or otherwise treated as inferior, we know it — even if we don’t show it or complain about it.  There’s absolutely no way that a law firm is getting maximum productivity and/or quality work out of employees looked down upon by those in authority.  The most productive, solid, high quality teams are those made up of team members who feel and know they are valued and appreciated by leadership.  It is made clear that every single employee plays a critical role – no matter how small or how low on the totem pole – in the firm’s success stories.

Okay – back to where I started with all this many paragraphs ago…that “n-l” word that irritates the heck out of me…..do we call people non-architects, non-doctors, non-social workers, non-coaches, etc.?!  Of course not so why in the world  is the “n-l” word so frequently used?  And, worst of all, it’s usually legal personnel (e.g. attorneys, staff, State Bar employees,etc.) that use it.  I’ve been guilty of doing so as well in years past because it was the easiest word at the moment to describe a situation…however, a good while back, I vowed to avoid the “n-l” word.  So although it’s certainly not every one who uses the “n-l” word with a negative intent, why use it at all when there are so many other more respectful words from which we can choose (e.g. legal or law office staff members, legal staff personnel, legal assistants, support staff, etc.!)?

So the point of taking the time to share my thoughts on this subject (and thank you for sticking with me!) is to ask you to join me in finding other words that are far more respectful when we are talking about folks who are not licensed to practice law.  Just think of the looks I’d get from the receptionist at an accountant’s office if I were to ask, “Are you the non-CPA?”  Or, when calling my doctor’s office I said, “Hi, I’d like to speak with a non-doctor.”  Then again, it may be serve me well the next time I get a nasty, cold reception from a store or service provider employee as I could say to him or her, “Hello….is there a non-grouch here with whom I could speak?!”

Thanks for “listening” and please share your comments and experiences back at me!

Smiles from Our Burro, Miz Star

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Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones is enthusiastically resourceful and tirelessly dedicated to helping her clients build success stories that last...and as a family law and workplace mediator, she is a passionate advocate for helping keep folks out of the courtroom and moving positively forward with their lives. And, oh yes, she also loves every minute at her family's mountainside ranch - the happy and always active home of 5 horses, 9 donkeys, 3 dogs and 1 very tough cat! She writes about the critters at Southern Fried Blog

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