My Essay in the ABA Journal About “Nonlawyer”

The ABA Journal has published my essay entitled What Should We Do with “Nonlawyer”? Go here.

I wrote it because I thought polemic on the subject (including a couple of contributions by me) doesn’t tell the whole story.

In my essay, I suggest that for two reasons, we can ease up on the indignation over nonlawyer. First, this use of non- isn’t unique to the legal profession. I’ve found non- used with all sorts of vocations. As I say in the essay, “So ‘nonlawyer’ is in the mainstream of English usage.”

And second, it’s routine that circumstances require considering lawyers separately from those who aren’t lawyers. Again, from the essay: “So we’re stuck with needing to refer to the ‘others’ group.”

That leaves us with the question of how best to refer to the “others” group. In the essay, I say that the trend in public discourse favors using over nonlawyer a negative verb structure, as in a person who is not a lawyer. That has the added benefit of sounding less bureaucratic.

Here’s what it boils down to:

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”?

My thanks to Elizabeth de Stadler and Rick Colosimo for helping me think through this.

Incidentally, this is my first article about something other than contracts. What breadth! 😉 But I don’t plan on making a habit of it.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

5 thoughts on “My Essay in the ABA Journal About “Nonlawyer””

  1. As a lawyer who rarely acts in that capacity, the term “nonlawer” is ambiguous for me. Maybe “not providing legal services” or something like that.

    Reply
  2. A few random comments:

    1/ “Lay,” as in layman, laywoman, and layperson, deserves mention. As an adjective, it contrasts with “learned, educated, professional, clerical.” It is not especially ecclesiastical, and derives through Latin “laicus” from Greek “laikos” (“of the people”) from “laos” (“the common folk, the people, the crowd”). In the New Testament, it is often used to signify the Jewish people. It would serve well but for (a) the clunk factor (“lawyers and laypersons”) and (b) the ecclesiastic echo (“clergy and laity,” as if lawyers were claiming priesthood).

    2/ The “person first” approach is wordy. Even editing “a person who is not a lawyer” down to “a person not a lawyer” echoes “a choice not an echo” and brings to mind the joke about how lawyers share 85% of genetic material with humans.

    3/ My own “solution”? I use “laypersons” whenever possible, with “nonlawyers” as my fallback, in the belief that “nonlawyer” is no more belittling than “nontoxic.”

    4/ You write about things other than contracts all the time, such as the need to cry your wares in the marketplace of ideas. No need to fear making a habit of writing about other stuff. You do it well. The late Howard Cosell did “Speaking of Sports” but also “Speaking of Everything.” –Wright

    Reply
    • Thanks! Regarding your final point, the issue isn’t my not feeling up to writing on topics other than contract drafting. Instead, the prose of contracts is limited and stylized, and a lot is at stake; that focuses the conversation. By contrast, when it comes to general English usage, there are no such constraints, so cacophony prevails.

      Reply

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