Beyond 'non-lawyers': Empowering allied professionals in India's legal landscape

The legal industry's commitment to inclusivity and modernisation will be measured by its ability to actualise systemic changes that respect and empower allied legal professionals.
Legal field
Legal field

The American Bar Association is facing a petition spearheaded by Olga V Mack, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and Damien Riehl, Vice-President and Solutions Champion at legal tech platform vLex. Their call to eliminate the term "non-lawyer" has reignited a pivotal debate on inclusion and hierarchies within the legal profession. 

As Indian law firms witness a surge in allied professionals across domains like business development, communication, legal technology and innovation, this issue takes on heightened relevance. While an influx of allied roles in Indian firms represents progress, it also exposes deep-seated cultural barriers and power dynamics. The longs-tanding functional teams in HR, finance, operations and IT have traditionally faced the brunt of this hierarchical mindset that places practicing lawyers at the apex of the ecosystem. Dismissive labels like "cost centers" reinforce the notion that allied staff are expendable resources rather than valued professionals.

Eric Farber, in his article Law Firms: Ditch the Hierarchy and Embrace Culture for All, emphasizes how treating support staff as second-class citizens hurts law firms. He argues that when people are relegated to second-class status, they feel unsafe and replaceable, making it difficult for them to care about the success of a business that makes them feel disrespected.

A recent article titled Unseen, Unheard: The Invisible Struggle of Non Lawyer Professionals in Indian Law Firms sheds light on the numerous challenges faced by non-lawyer professionals in the Indian legal industry. From pay disparities to policy discrimination, the article delves into the lack of recognition and respect for their tireless contributions. It highlights the culture of disregard that permeates law firms, the ineffectiveness of HR policies in addressing their grievances, and the toll on their well-being and mental health.

As new allied roles emerge in strategic areas like business development and legal innovation, India's legal sphere has an opportunity to move beyond outdated perceptions. Nonetheless, achieving real inclusion and equality extends beyond simple terminological updates like abandoning the term "non-lawyer."

Non-lawyers
Non-lawyers

There is an added layer of complexity when allied professionals hail from a legal background themselves. Former lawyers transitioning into allied roles may wield more influence due to their law degrees and social connections within the legal fraternity. Yet, they encounter a unique form of marginalisation, trapped in a limbo between being insiders and outsiders.

The challenge of dismantling deep-rooted barriers is immense, demanding a comprehensive approach that addresses various facets of the issue.

Firstly, creating structured and well-defined pathways and curricula for ancillary roles in law is essential. This legitimises their expertise and sets them on an equal professional footing. Moreover, promoting inter-disciplinary collaboration from law school itself can help breakdown silos and foster mutual respect early on. In India, several law schools are leading the charge in promoting inter-disciplinary collaboration and formalising these pathways. For instance, Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) offers a wide range of electives like coding, sustainable architecture, international affairs and journalism, providing students with a broader skill set. Similarly, DSU School of Law in Bengaluru collaborates with other schools to offer inter-disciplinary electives and specializations in tech, entrepreneurship, finance and policy.

Crucially, law firms must take affirmative steps in recognizing and promoting allied professionals in leadership and decision-making roles. Their strategic vision and cross-functional prowess can be pivotal drivers of growth and innovation. In parallel, advocacy from professional organisations can accelerate necessary systemic reforms.

The transformation towards a more inclusive legal profession depends significantly on the established attorneys' willingness to challenge their preconceptions and build a more collaborative culture. Without a conscious effort to reject entrenched notions of hierarchy, progress towards inclusivity will be hindered.

Ultimately, the legal industry's commitment to inclusivity and modernisation will be measured by its ability to actualise systemic changes that respect and empower allied legal professionals. This progress is essential for dismantling outdated structures and fostering a legal ecosystem characterized by unity and efficiency, aligning with the ethos of the 21st century.

As they navigate these crucial changes, Indian law firms must balance careful consideration with decisive action. Recognizing the value of allied professionals extends beyond mere compliance with modern standards. It's a strategic choice to stay relevant and competitive in an ever-evolving professional environment. The path forward is one that moves away from outdated isolation and towards a unified, collaborative, multi-disciplinary workforce.

About the author: Shreya Vajpei is a member of the the Innovation team at Khaitan & Co.

Nimrat Dhillon assisted with insights and on-ground research for the article.

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