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On Better Terms: What should we do with 'nonlawyer'?

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Kenneth A. Adams

Kenneth A. Adams.

"Nonlawyer" means someone who isn’t a lawyer. But for years, many have found the word objectionable.

See, for example, this 2017 blog post by Heather Morse. And here’s what Julie Savarino says in this 2020 LinkedIn post (see also her follow-up post here):

“Let’s all stop using ‘Nonlawyer’! John Croft, president & co-founder of Elevate services told me he is often called or referred to as a ‘nonlawyer’ to his face, which can be implicitly insulting & offensive. He said, ‘I am also a nondoctor, nonarchitect & a nonveterinarian but no one ever calls me that.’ Just because he did not go to #law school or pass the bar does not make him (or anyone else) ‘less than’ a #lawyer. A better term to use is ‘business professional’ or ‘allied business professional.’”

But the case against “nonlawyer” isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

The prefix ‘non’

Garner’s Modern English Usage says the negative prefix “non” “is the broadest of the prefixes, since it may precede virtually any word.” (Commentators on English usage recommend not using a hyphen with “non,” unless it’s attached to a proper noun, as in “non-American.”) “Non” is used in nouns (nonpayment, nonperson), in adjectives (nontoxic, nonlethal) and in adverbs (nonaggressively, nonstop).

As for “non” used with occupations, I’ve seen nonarchitect, nonengineer, nonplumber, nondoctor, and others. Heck, I’ve seen nongynecologist. So “nonlawyer” is in the mainstream of English usage.

Needing to refer to the ‘others’ group

If you describe people by saying what they aren’t, you’re silent regarding what they are. And readers might think that you’re suggesting that those described have fallen short of a norm. It accords greater dignity to those described if you call them what they are.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education now uses “English learners” or “English language learners” instead of “nonnative English speakers” in referring to students whose first language is not English but who are trying to learn it. See, for example, this Department of Education presentation.

So instead of calling someone a nonlawyer, you could call them what they are. A contract manager. A paralegal. A businessperson. Whatever. And when referring to a group of such people, a collective term such as “support staff” might be appropriate, depending on the context.

But often, that won’t work. For example, I’ve considered the notion that only lawyers should draft contracts. (See this 2020 blog post.) And more broadly, lawyers are singled out for regulation. Addressing such contexts requires dividing the world into lawyers and others. Usually, it would be unwieldy or impossible to refer to each of the functions that together make up the “others” group.

Ways to refer to the ‘others’ group

So we’re stuck with needing to refer to the “others” group. How best to refer to it?

The chief virtue of “nonlawyer” is that it’s concise, but it saves you only a few words. And tacking “non” onto a noun sounds clunky and bureaucratic.

One alternative to “nonlawyer” is “layperson.” (“Layman” is unhelpfully gender-specific.) It means a person of a religious faith as distinguished from its clergy, but it also means someone who doesn’t belong to a particular profession or who isn’t expert in some field. But “layperson” doesn’t tell you what profession the person doesn’t belong to, so it’s less specific than “nonlawyer.”

‘Identity-first language’ and ‘person-first language’

A better alternative to “nonlawyer” is using a negative verb structure, as in “a person who is not a lawyer.” Or “anyone who is not a lawyer.”

Regarding the relative merits of “nonlawyer” and negative verb structures, it seems unduly limiting to use only “non” to define something by what it’s not. This suggests the debate over the relative merits of “identity-first language” and “person-first language.” Examples of identity-first language are “Type 1 diabetic” and “autistic”; examples of person-first language are “a person with Type 1 diabetes” and “a person with autism.”

A focus of the disability rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s was inclusion. Because disability had traditionally been seen as the defining feature of a person, activists sought to separate the disability from the person by bringing the person to the fore. Person-first language has been used to accomplish that, becoming the language of choice and being used in many disability laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But of newer generations of activists, some prefer identity-first language—they see their disability as an essential part of their identity. For more on these contrasting approaches, see this article in the Boston Globe and this article in the Georgetown Voice.

“Nonlawyer” is an example of identity-first language; “a person who isn’t a lawyer” is an example of person-first language. By analogy to debate in the disabled community over the two types of terms, it might seem that “nonlawyer” is a legitimate option and might even be preferred by some. But that’s far-fetched—it’s hard to imagine that anyone would see their lack of lawyer credentials as an essential part of their identity, such that they prefer to be described as a nonlawyer.

So the only plausible consideration is the notion behind person-first language—that defining someone by what they lack is to accord that person insufficient dignity.

Your choices

In a context in which you might be inclined to use “nonlawyer,” I suggest you consider the alternatives: Could you call the people in question what they are instead of what they aren’t? If that’s not possible, could you use a negative verb structure (as in, for example, “a person who is not a lawyer”) instead of “nonlawyer”? Or do you have to express the idea enough times that “nonlawyer” offers real economy? Or are you forced to use “nonlawyer” because you’re referring to regulations that use “nonlawyer”?

Worrying about such nuances might seem “politically correct” or—heaven forbid—“woke,” but I’m willing to revisit the implications of words I use. For example, after receiving some feedback, I don’t use “guys” in speaking to groups with a mix of men and women, and I don’t use “stepchild” to connote neglect. The least I can do in my messaging is not turn a blind eye to the challenges and inequities many of us face. Also, I’d rather not sound like a bureaucrat.

Kenneth A. Adams is a lawyer who specializes in how to say clearly and concisely whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting (fifth edition 2023), and he offers training in contract drafting. He’s also the chief content officer at LegalSifter. He can be reached at [email protected].

See also:

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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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