Why I No Longer Use the Term “Contracts Professional”

I’ve been prone to using the phrase contracts professional as a way to refer collectively to (1) lawyers who work with contracts and (2) contract managers. But I’m not keen on the term.

When used as a noun, the word professional is slippery. In its narrowest sense, it’s used to refer to those who work in fields that require some sort of certification—lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, and perhaps others, depending on one’s viewpoint. As such, a contract manager wouldn’t usually be described as a professional, in this sense of the word.

And anyway, in an era when lawyers are competing with robots, it seems precious to elevate those in some fields above others by designating them, and only them, as professionals. So I say the heck with that sense of professional.

In a broader sense of the word, one is a professional if one adheres to a set of professional standards. That much is suggested in this 2012 post by Tim Cummins, head of the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management. But in the phrase professional standards, the word professional would seem simply to mean rigorous. All sorts of occupations would benefit from professional standards. If that makes everyone in those fields a professional, that would seem to strip the word of much meaning.

There’s an even broader meaning of professional. I’m typing this while on a flight to Seoul. In a video at the beginning of the flight, the new CEO of Delta expressed that he was glad to be part of the team of “Delta professionals.” In that context, a professional is simply a dedicated employee. In the same vein, I recently heard someone refer to “IT professionals.”

A more straightforward alternative to the broadest meaning of professional is personnel. (Outside of fields involving manual labor, we can dispense with worker, with its Stakhanovite overtones.) But personnel doesn’t work if you want a blanket term that includes lawyers—it wouldn’t make sense to describe as personnel solo lawyers and lawyers in partnerships.

A couple of people on Twitter suggested specialist. For two reasons, I don’t think that works. The word specialist suggests a focus on a subject, whereas I’ve applied the term contracts professional to any lawyer who works with contracts, to whatever extent. And contracts managers deal only with contracts. Because they don’t do anything else, they can’t be said to specialize in contracts, any more than a plumber can be said to specialize in plumbing.

So instead, here’s the phrase I propose using from now on: those who work with contracts. Or you could say people who work with contracts. What the heck, there’s even contracts people. Those monikers don’t exude gravitas, so a trade group might find them lacking, but that’s irrelevant for my purposes.

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.