A little over a week ago a conversation began about the use of the term “non-lawyer” in the context of referring to business executives in law firms.

It started with the American Lawyer‘s coverage of Husch Blackwell‘s new CEO: Husch Blackwell’s Next Leader is a Newly Employed Non-Lawyer (subs. req).

When Paul Eberle assumes the top leadership role at Husch Blackwell in February 2018, the non-lawyer manager will have spent less than two years working at the firm he presides over.

Sadly, the American Lawyer failed to give credit to Mr. Eberle’s for his 20 years of executive experience as a CEO, and that caught the eyes of the legal marketing community.

I blogged about it here: Husch Blackwell’s incoming CEO is a professional, not a “non-lawyer”

Those of us who have dedicated our careers as legal industry professionals would like you to understand that the term “non-lawyer” is offensive, and does a disservice to all of the firms that are being run as businesses.

Greg Lambert over at Three Geeks and a Law Blog picked up the conversations, Legal News Publishers: Stop Using the Term “Non-Lawyer”:

… there are lawyers in law firms, and there are professionals who are in the business of running a law firm. The old way of running these law firms usually meant that one or more of the law firm partners also ran operations. However, as firms grew, that method was challenged by a more traditional business structure of having those trained in management and business operations running the administrative structure of the firm, and letting the Partners set the strategic goals of the firm, and get back to the practice of law.

The American Lawyer Responds

Which lead to a GREAT conversation with Gina Passarella, and the American Lawyer covering the conversation around the conversation, What the Reaction to the Term ‘Nonlawyer’ Says About Law Firm Caste Systems:

In part, the argument, and it’s a valid one, is that using the word focuses on what the person is not, rather than what they are. The bigger complaint is that calling business professionals nonlawyers perpetuates a caste system within law firms in which lawyers look down on those without a law degree, failing to appreciate the exact advice for which they pay those business professionals.”

And even our peers and colleagues at the Consortium of Legal Operations Counsel (CLOC) linked an article from one of their members, Mark A. Cohen, who touched on the subject, Why The Legal Industry Must Embrace Diversity, Technology, and Collaboration:

It’s time that the legal profession finally jettison archaic, meaningless, and potentially confusing terms like ‘non-lawyer’ and ‘alternative provider.’ These are holdovers of a self-regulated legal guild that is being transformed by consumers that seek solutions to increasingly complex business challenges that raise legal issues, not ‘legal matters.’ Lawyers are increasingly part of integrated professional teams that leverage technology and process to tackle these business challenges. Law is no longer an island, and lawyers are not the sole inhabitants.

So, why all the hoopla?

So, why all the hoopla?  After all, the American Bar Association (est. 1878) coined the term. It’s a “real” word. It has meaning when it comes to who can be a partner in a law firm, as well as fee-share.

Why? Because words matter.

Words matter in court. Words matter in relationships. Words matter in business.

Several of us got into a debate about this on my LinkedIn post here. Defending the word comes down to an “us” and “the rest of the world” argument.

You don’t see this in other professions. Doctors are well regulated, but you never hear them refer to the nurses, nurse practitioners, paramedics, and orderlies as “non-doctors.” They are a team. Each has a role. Each has a unique contribution to make.

I have worked in several firms that have either had to merge out because of poor business decisions, or were the beneficiaries of the “merger.” What have I learned? Brilliant lawyers do not always make the best business decisions. Which is why, with the stakes get higher and higher–it won’t be long before we have the first $3 billion law firm–business executives are necessary. Simply put, we are a team, and each of us has a unique contribution to make in the law firm ecosystem,.

Go back and read Mark’s post on Forbes (link) if you haven’t already. It’s about how private practice lawyers need to diversify, embrace technology, and good business practices.

Diversity, technology, and collaboration are hallmarks of a new legal culture. Each is crucial to a profession that is the first responder and ultimate defender of the rule of law that applies to all societal members on an equal basis.

The world is changing, but many lawyers are not embracing that change fast enough. The culture remains predominately risk adverse, and skeptical. Business entrepreneurs are not. Law firms do best when they embrace diversity, technology, and collaborate with experts … whether or not their name is followed by JD or Esq.