For many years working in the realm of law firms I have been described as a Non – a non lawyer. It is a rather strange predicament to define yourself and your skills based on what you are not, rather than what you are. I remember when my husband first graduated from university and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, he took a series of jobs to try things out only to come to the conclusion a year later that he learned what he didn’t want to do. So he went back to school, twice, in pursuit of being a something. I on the other hand, graduated from grad school and shortly thereafter started on my almost two decade journey of being a Non.
I am a Non-lawyer, a term that is unique in the legal industry where only those who are not “fee earners” describe themselves, or more precisely are described by lawyers, as Nons. You never hear of nurses being described as non-doctors, or dental hygenists as non-dentists, or even book sellers as non-authors. Regardless of how I feel about being described in that way, there are many published articles about the topic, here, or here. The debate about the legitimacy and appropriateness of the Non nomenclature rages on, at the same time as discussions about the efficiency of law firms, death of the billable hour, growth of corporate departments and the compulsion to modernize firm business models evolves. The irony to us Nons, of course, is as the non-lawyerly functions in law firms and departments increases, the need for Nons to create and execute on strategy, manage new workflows and create new processes continues to expand. Firms are increasingly hiring non-lawyer Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Strategy Officers, Project Management Officers and so on. Yet this critical group of contributors to the legal industry are for the most part only described in relation to what they are not. Some have tried to adopt terms like law firm administrators, or a personal favourite term “allied professionals” which makes me feel like I am a super hero, part of a Justice League battling for efficiency and competitiveness in the legal market.
In 2007 as a competitive intelligence practitioner, I found myself reporting into the Director of Library Services. Once again though far less emphatically I heard myself being described by what I was not. I was not a librarian or an MLIS/MI grad, despite being in a department with law librarians, library techs, LIS students and the like helping them to understand how and where they can add value to the strategic process of competitive intelligence. That same year I briefly contemplated going to Library school to even the playing field. I applied to the iSchool at the University of Toronto where I am now a sessional instructor, and I got in, but owing to my full time job and young child at the time I decided not to accept. I am glad I didn’t but more on that later. In any event, my participation in library conferences, library schools and library discussions comes from a very different perspective. I see information and intelligence – the strategic offspring of information as a catalyst for transformation in a profession that is desperately trying to find its place in the new digitally mediated world.
This past week (June 9th-13th, 2018) I was in Baltimore for the annual Special Libraries Association Conference where keynote speaker Sayeed Choudhury – Associate Dean for Research Data Management – John Hopkins University was asked by a member in attendance what the association could do to boost membership. His thoughtful answer after a few moments was “become more relevant” and he said it with all the respect in the world for a profession in which he himself engages. One way to become more relevant is to embrace a difference of approaches, learn to use your skills in interesting new ways and/or to teach MI/MLIS students additional topics, new ways of seeing and using their degrees. There is a whole assortment of activity in the world today that is underscored by information, data, taxonomies, knowledge management and intelligence topics covered over the three days at SLA, and yet the narrative remains the same and relevance is status quo. It takes the Non librarian perspective to embrace what the community is doing and bring it to bear in the new ways with a renewed relevance.
When I got into the iSchool and decided not to go, my Director of Library Services boss who had written me a glowing recommendation on the grounds that if this what I wanted she would support me, sighed a huge sigh and said “Thank goodness you are not going. I wanted you in the department because I needed your perspective. You see the world differently and if you went to library school you would think just like everybody else. I never want that.” Those words ring in my head some 11 years later, I suspect they will never leave me and I will continue to bring a difference of perspective, a unique perspective on relevancy and something a bit different to my Non life as a librarian for many years. There are a whole host of Non lawyers working in the legal industry as outlined in the articles noted above, but in the library world there are not as many. To really change the perspective and inspire a new relevancy we need others to find their way into the profession as well. Like the practice of law, librarianship is meeting its own challenges adapting to a highly technologically mediated world and I believe that Nons can help pave the way to bright future as a part of the library and information professional community.
The mention of technology is a comical one for me, as technology is the next phase of my being a Non. Today, I find myself at the intersection of information professionals and the legal industry, in a new capacity as a Non. I am a Non technologist working at one of the leading global technology innovators, a company that has pledged a $100 million dollars of support to the Canadian technology ecosystem. I am routinely called upon to talk about how law firms and legal departments can take advantage of advancements in technology to grow their practices, increase their revenues or shrink their bottom lines and most importantly provide the best in client service. Next week, I will be speaking on the very topic at Artificial Intelligence: Moving Legal Innovation Forward. I understand the legal process aspects, and I understand the research capabilities and opportunities and I understand the applications of technology, even if I am not technical. Once again, I think being a Non has provided me with a unique perspective and a language with which to talk to other Nons about tech, increasing adoption and uptake in firms.
Why does my life as a Non matter? It matters to me, and it should matter to all of you. If I have learned anything over the past couple of decades, it is that as our individual industries evolve to meet the changing market dynamics we need multiple perspectives beyond our own confirmation biases to help impart large scale and lasting changes. In today’s professional world, diversity and inclusion are hot topics with good reason. According to McKinsey, organizations with more diversity have greater efficiency and see greater financial returns. Diversity to my mind as a Non includes diversity of thought and perspective. While I am a Non Lawyer, Non Librarian, Non Technologist, I have had and hope to continue to have a long and successful career in my chosen field. Being a Non can sometimes get lonely and occasionally it can feel like you are the only one who sees what should be so obvious to everyone around you. Only they don’t see what you see – their own biases keep those items firmly in the blind spots. Perspective and maybe a bit of CI training, can help bring blind spots into the light.
I also know that despite being a Non, I am a Has of a set of skills and competencies that are needed and respected in the areas in which I practice my profession. It is owing to these skills that my perspective is sought and appreciated, even as a Non. I also know that industries of all types could benefit from the perspective of more Nons to help remove bias and reveal new relevancies. I didn’t set out to be a Non, but it’s a title I have embraced and one that I have learned to accept as a badge of honour. To me being a Non gives me a bit of an edge and rightly or wrongly a sense that I can tell it like it is because no one cares what a Non thinks any way. But truth be told, professionals are listening to Nons and paying attention to what we say, what we do and how we think. Leading me to believe that being a Non can be the real thing.
Editor’s note: This article published with the author’s permission – first publication on Three Geeks and a Law Blog