GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004
Working with Asian Clients
There are myriad reasons why an attorney might want to extend legal services to Asian clients. Perhaps a large Asian population has begun to flourish in the locality; the demand for services from Asian clients is increasing; or the lawyer simply enjoys interacting with people from diverse cultures. The leap into the market, however, may be stymied by questions relating to cultural differences: What would be the best approach? The suggestions in this article will help guide you through the process of attracting and servicing Asian clients. It must be remembered, of course, that the term “Asian” encompasses a wide variety of nationalities and ethnic groups, and even within these groups it is unwise to assume that all clients will act identically or want the same type of legal representation.
A lawyer’s ability to attract and retain Asian clients rests on legal competence and customer service, not on race or ability to speak the native language of the prospective clients. Like other clients, a prospective Asian client will look first at the attorney’s ability to achieve favorable results, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Surprisingly, some Asian clients prefer to employ non-Asian attorneys. This preference results from the clients’ understanding of the legal systems in their native countries, which in countries such as Vietnam, China, and India often are ineffective and tainted by corruption, and where legal matters are resolved by bribing government officials. Asian clients sometimes assume that non-Asian U.S. attorneys have a wider network than do Asian attorneys and thus can exert more influence over judges and jurors to rule in their favor. With this background, some Asian clients on occasion might expect the lawyer to bribe judicial or government officials to attain favorable results. The correct response in such a circumstance, of course, would be to educate the client about the U.S. legal system and the illegality of bribery.
Privacy is another reason Asian clients may prefer to seek the services of non-Asian attorneys. Many Asian clients are not familiar with the concept of attorney-client privilege and fear that information disclosed to an attorney may leak into the community and become common gossip. Non-Asian lawyers generally are not closely associated with people in the clients’ ethnic community, so clients feel safer and are less concerned about this possibility.
Some Asian clients also believe that non-Asian attorneys are inherently better attorneys because they do not speak with an accent, as do many Asian attorneys. Other Asian clients are more comfortable with attorneys of their nationality. The Asian market can accommodate both non-Asian and Asian attorneys.
Matters involving immigration, family, personal injury (predominantly auto collision), and criminal (misdemeanors and felonies) law create greater demand from Asian clients than areas such as estates or tax planning. Many Asian clients are unfamiliar with the principle behind estate and tax planning using legal tools and thus don’t appreciate its importance. For the most part, they believe laws exist to resolve conflicts, not to provide opportunities to plan for the future.
Court systems that supervise transfer of estate assets in most Asian countries are ineffective or even nonexistent and do not impose transfer taxes. As a result, Asian clients—especially newer immigrants—assume the U.S. wealth transfer system is substantially similar and have no concept of tax minimization or avoidance of probate. Many Asian clients, unfortunately, learn about the importance of estate planning only when a friend or family member dies. Ironically, therefore, this area has a tremendous potential for growth within the Asian community. Lawyers who would like to expand into this area would be wise to start investing in that potential now, and educating the local Asian community about the importance of these services would be an excellent strategy. Whether you utilize marketing and advertising or offer more informal community seminars and presentations, you can start to make your name and services known. When Asian clients understand the importance of planning techniques, they likely will turn to attorneys who already are active in the community to provide them.
Marketing is essential—maybe a must—to attract Asian clients. Common marketing strategies often stress becoming involved in ethnic communities and developing trusting relationships with the people. This, of course, creates name recognition. Another way to add an attorney’s name to the community memory bank is through advertising. When Asian clients seek legal services, they turn to family and friends for recommendations. Advertising, therefore, promotes name recognition, but a recommendation from a friend or family member increases an attorney’s chance of being retained exponentially.
The benefits of advertising in local ethnic magazines and newspapers generally justify the costs. The trick is finding the right match. Visit local ethnic grocery stores or restaurants and pick up a copy of each ethnic magazine or newspaper; most of them are available for free (ask for them if they’re not on display). Advertise in the one that has the most lawyer advertisements—it’s often the community’s unofficial attorney directory and the first place Asian clients turn to find a lawyer. Remember that a particular Asian national/ethnic group is unlikely to read the publications of a different Asian group (e.g., a Thai client will probably not read a newspaper written in Korean), so you may need to place ads in more than one periodical.
Further, call a few of the lawyers who already advertise in the magazine/newspaper, introduce yourself, and ask about their experience with advertising benefits. While on the phone, ask them to refer clients to you in the event conflicts of interest arise. In preparing this article I spoke with six sole practitioners and attorneys from small firms serving a large proportion of Asian clients of different ethnicities, and each attorney was eager to share marketing strategies with other attorneys. Many attorneys marketing to the Asian community advertise in more than one medium.
Because of the language barrier, the staff of the magazine/newspaper most likely will assist you in producing your ad. Most lawyers I spoke with stress that including your picture in the ad is a must. If you’re non-Asian but have an Asian assistant, include both your photos, which reassures potential clients that language should not be a problem. Even clients who want a non-Asian lawyer still may prefer to communicate in their native tongue. Asian lawyers—whether or not they speak any non-English language—can omit the photo; Asian clients will assume from the name that the lawyer is bilingual.
Another marketing tool is to join ethnic bar associations to network with attorneys who also serve the target community. These attorneys are a good source of referrals when they have conflicts of interest or when the matter is outside of their practice area.
Language, of course, usually is the main concern when working with Asian clients. Some attorneys have legal assistants who speak the native language and act as translators for the clients. None of the attorneys I spoke with use independent translation services; if no one on staff is fluent in the client’s native language, the attorney usually asks that the client be accompanied by a family member or friend who can translate. Interestingly, none of the attorneys I spoke with provide legal documents in the native language of non-English-speaking clients. The retainer agreement and other documents are in English but are explained and translated into the client’s native language by the translator before the client signs.
One last detail: It is not necessary to decorate your office in an Asian theme. A professional ambiance should be your goal.
Asians in general are cost-conscious clients and want the best service for the lowest price—just like other clients. You can expect that most Asian clients will prefer (and ask for) a contingent fee arrangement, so they don’t have to pay your fee if the matter doesn’t resolve in their favor. The next preference would be a flat fee so they can cap the expense; then, an hourly fee arrangement. They often will accept an attorney’s requested fee if they are confident that the attorney can deliver the results.
Victoria Tran is of counsel at Bay Oak Law Firm in Oakland, California, and practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, and probate and trust litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to the following lawyers who contributed their experience with this topic: Madan (Raja) Ahluwalia, Hoa Glassey, Philip Hodgen, James Mayock, Felicita Thuy Ngo, John Skeath, and Thai Luu.