Be a Better Lawyer: Learn Spanish.

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The demographics of our country are rapidly changing, so it is easy to see why Spanish-language skills are a growing trend among lawyers.  The need for Spanish permeates almost every area of the law including the areas of criminal, family, immigration, personal injury, and others.  And with this year as a likely year for comprehensive immigration reform, the need for professional Spanish language-skills is a reality that is here to stay and escalate as more Spanish speakers become an integral part of our social fabric.

As a long-time student of Spanish, I did not grow up speaking the language at home.  I neither had Spanish-speaking parents nor had the benefit of living in a Spanish-speaking environment at a young age.  My Spanish-language abilities have come instead from long years of both classroom study and practical use through living and working in Spain and now serving Spanish-speaking clients in law practice.  Thus, I understand how a foreign-language may not come easily to those who try to learn it outside of a bilingual, bicultural environment.  At the same time, I also know that with time and effort, you can speak and write in a new language – and it can do wonders for you both professionally and personally.

The following five reasons describe the benefits a lawyer can expect to achieve after committing to learning Spanish and incorporating the skill into law practice.

1. Provide better service.

Practicing law is about service.  Therefore, the most significant benefit to incorporating Spanish into your law practice is providing better service to clients through increasing effective communication.  Your ability to communicate with clients in their language provides convenient, customized attention to their legal needs.  Go a step further and provide contracts, client-intake forms or questionnaires, evidence checklists, thank-you letters, and other forms and correspondence in Spanish.  Once your clients know about your Spanish-language skills, they will likely inform their Spanish-speaking family and friends to contact you for your legal services as well. 

2. Impress others.

Let others know about your newfound language ability, and they will likely respect you for it.  Allow yourself to become known for your willingness to be a better lawyer by serving your clients in a language in which they are most comfortable expressing their questions and understanding their options.  Set attainable goals for yourself as you learn the language such as new legal vocabulary or professional phrases each week.  Then, share your honest accomplishments with your colleagues, family, and friends.  When others know that you now offer services in Spanish, their admiration will build and referrals will likely follow.

Recommended Resources
- Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos by Ricardo Villa-Real Molina and Miguel Ángel del Arco Torres
- www.rae.es for official Spanish definitions and rules

3. Avoid misunderstandings.

Avoid malpractice by speaking the same language as your Spanish-speaking clients to clarify important information such as dates of hearings, criminal-history information, and other important facts for determining legal options or benefits.  By learning and improving your Spanish skills, you can minimize and avoid a language barrier that might otherwise impede your effective representation of a client.

4. Acquire client trust.

Explaining complicated legal processes or clarifying a procedural or factual issue in Spanish to a client creates ease and facilitates understanding.  Establishing this comfort is significant for Spanish-speaking clients who are oftentimes wary of falling victim to a complex legal system they do not understand.  Your attempt to speak their language thus helps build the rapport between lawyer and client.

5. Deepen cultural understanding and connect with community.

While the above four benefits will all indirectly help you in your professional development, this last point is specifically beneficial on a more personal level.  Studying Spanish has enriched my life beyond just my profession; it has become a second way of thinking and being for me.  Similarly, utilizing Spanish-language skills with clients on an individual basis may help you garner a sense of cultural sensitivity you have not experienced before.  When comfortable, take it a step further and provide presentations to Spanish-speaking members of your community to educate about developments in your legal field; offer pro-bono services to a Spanish-speaking individual in need; or volunteer at a local organization that assists Spanish-speaking clients with legal or other issues.  The more time and effort you invest, the more confident you will grow in your ability to represent your Spanish-speaking clients with knowledge of not only their language but also their customs.  Understanding these customs will help you become a better advocate of the goals most important to your Spanish-speaking clients.

Learning Tips

Once you have committed yourself to the idea of learning another language, consider these options for improvement:

  • Take a community-college course to learn Spanish;
  • Check with your local bar association to see whether it offers Spanish courses for lawyers;
  • Browse through the American Bar Association’s publication The ABA Spanish Legal Phrasebook;
  • Hire a private tutor;
  • Use www.verbling.com to practice with other native-Spanish speakers before speaking Spanish with clients;
  • Download free podcasts to practice listening (I recommend “News in Slow Spanish” or “Notes in Spanish”);  
  • Check out an immersion course in a Spanish-speaking country.

Only you can motivate yourself and gauge how well you adapt to the challenge of taking on an additional language and incorporating it into role as a lawyer.  But the more foreign-language ability you acquire, the more personalized assistance you can provide to your prospective Spanish-speaking clients.  And if experience tells me anything, they will appreciate you for it.

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