Tiptoeing Around “Nonlawyer”

I’ve previously written about the word nonlawyer, in this 2020 blog post. Prompted by something I posted on LinkedIn yesterday (here), I thought I’d try again, to reflect a further thought. So this post is my definitive take, until my next nonlawyer post!

I think what Julie Savarino says in this LinkedIn post (see also Julie’s follow-up post here) captures the prevailing argument against nonlawyer:

Let’s all stop using “NON-LAWYER”! John Croft, President & Co-Founder of Elevate Services told me he is often called or referred to as a “non-lawyer” to his face, which can be implicitly insulting & offensive. He said, “I am also a non-doctor, non-architect & a non-veterinarian 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”.

I stand by what I said in my 2020 post:

Regarding nonlawyer—please, no hyphen!—I see why people object. Generally, it’s not great to define people by what they aren’t. So instead of calling someone a nonlawyer, you could refer to them by what they are. A contract manager. A paralegal. A businessperson. Whatever. And when referring to a group of such people, something like support staff might be appropriate, depending on the context.

But that’s not always going to work. Specifically, today’s [other blog] post aims to rebut the notion that only lawyers should be responsible for contract drafting. That notion inherently divides the world into lawyers and others. It follows that in rebutting that argument, I have to refer to the “others” group. It would be impossible for me to refer to each of the functions that together constitute the “others” group.

In that post, I also say “I could say ‘people who aren’t lawyers,’ but that expresses the same meaning as nonlawyer, just with more words.” That’s what I’d like to revisit in this post.

The difference between nonlawyer and people who aren’t lawyers is that in the former, the not-a-lawyer status swallows the person, whereas in the latter, the person comes before the not-a-lawyer status.

People care about this sort of messaging. This is from a study on Dutch preferences regarding whether to say autistic person or person with autism (here):

There are different words to describe people with an autism diagnosis. For instance, we can put the person before autism (e.g. ‘person with autism’), or we can put autism before the person (e.g. ‘autistic person’). Previous research showed that autistic adults in English-speaking countries generally liked it better when autism is placed before the person.

I think it’s safe to say that because it’s unlikely that someone would base their sense of self on not being a lawyer, it would be odd for anyone to prefer nonlawyer over people who aren’t lawyers. Furthermore, nonlawyer is more clumsy than autistic person.

So I recommend you use nonlawyer only as an adjective in those contexts where nonlawyer affords meaningful economy or is already enshrined in regulations. For example, in the phrase nonlawyer ownership. Instead of the noun nonlawyer, say people who aren’t lawyers or those who aren’t lawyers, or some variant.

So that’s my current understanding regarding nonlawyer. Thank you for indulging me in thinking it out publicly. My thanks to Elizabeth de Stadler for gently easing me down the right path.

While I’m on the subject, the shortcomings of nonlawyer can perhaps be found in other words and phrases that express what people aren’t. Consider the phrase that prompted yesterday’s LinkedIn post—non-native English speaker. Like nonlawyer, it prioritizes the lack over the person. Because it’s unlikely that anyone would base their sense of self on not having English as their first language, say instead those whose first language is other than English, or some variant. But beyond that, it seems unhelpful to turn learning a second language into a negative. I suspect there’s extensive polemic on this issue; go here for just one example. And while we’re at it, native could be understood as having unhelpful connotations. So there’s no shortage of reasons not to use non-native English speaker.

(For the six of you who care about such things, I included a hyphen in non-native English speaker because of the potential for a reader miscue if you omit it—the reader might momentarily think it’s a different word, nonn-ative. But that’s not a hill I wish to die on!)

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.

3 thoughts on “Tiptoeing Around “Nonlawyer””

  1. I believe the education field has steered away from “non-native” speaker. Schools used to have classes in “English as a Second Language” (which suggests those students were behind) but it is now instruction for “English Language Learners” which has a more neutral tone. I expect in most ways that we identify ourselves we instinctively put persons not in our group in an “other” category, such as “is your nonprofit organization religious or non-religious? Faith based or non-faith based? Are you athletic or nonathletic?” While we have ready pairs of words that are opposites for some things (tall/short, large/small, inside/outside), probably we revert to adding the “non” prefix whenever we don’t have a handy opposite word. Sometimes language evolves to create a new, non-pejorative label to distinguish things which are different. Consider the original “guitar”, which was followed by the more descriptive “electric guitar”. When the newer instrument became sufficiently common, we began using “acoustic guitar” to distinguish the original from the “non-original” or “non-acoustic” guitar.

  2. Ken:

    I disagree with the notion that the first word in a series gets priority. In English, there’s no such rule. If I list three things to get from the store, there, no sense that the first one is the most important one. Adjectives coming before nouns is just normal English grammar. If you really want to emphasize the adjective, you put it second, because that’s deliberately odd or poetic (like a midnight dreary), outside stock noun phrases like attorney general. And if you really want to emphasize a word in a sentence, you put it last. So, to my ear, “She’s an autistic person” is neutral, where “she’s a person with autism” heavily emphasizes the condition over the person. Perhaps there’s a difference in reading it versus hearing it, and the belief that first gives priority stems from our cultural orientation to the written word over the spoken.


    • Hi Chris. I’m not suggesting there’s a rule. There is, however, messaging, and the debate regarding autistic person shows that people care about that sort of messaging. But the messaging relating to autistic person isn’t directly relevant to nonlawyer, and the semantic context is different. For now, I’m comfortable that I’ve made a good call regarding nonlawyer.


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