GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004

Working with Hispanic Clients

Hispanics are now officially the largest minority in the United States. According to the Census Bureau reports from 2002, the group is estimated at 38.8 million of a total estimated resident population of 288.4 million. Hispanics represent a growing sector of the public that is not easy to capture as a client base, but which is well worth the effort. Can solos and small firm lawyers effectively represent Hispanic clients, or should they be sent on to larger, multicultural firms? I believe the size of the firm does not represent its competency, or lack thereof. A small firm possibly can be more effective in some cases. As with any case, however, we need to determine the complexity of the case early on and determine the client’s expectations. If you live in Miami, Chicago, or El Paso, it’s likely you’ve worked with Hispanic clients before. But lawyers who are new to multicultural practices may appreciate some insight into the best ways to approach the delivery of effective legal services to this group.

Culture

The term “Hispanic” as a demographic group works well as a starting point, as long as you understand there is no “Hispanic culture” per se. There, the secret is out! “Hispanic” is a helpful label that has been placed on a group speaking the same language (more on that later) and sharing a common beginning. Of course, there is not even agreement within the Spanish-speaking community on the label “Hispanic.” Some people prefer to be called “Latino,” while others eschew either label, or simply prefer to be identified by their national origin.

All countries have their own cultures, histories, and ways of doing things. Although Hispanics as a group share similarities, they view themselves mainly in terms of national identity, not ethnicity or language. Non-Hispanics might identify similarities and guess that a group of people is Hispanic. Hispanics likely will look at the same group and determine that one is from the Caribbean, one from Europe, others from Central or South America. More likely, they’ll even be able to identify (within geographic proximity) nationality: Dominican or Puerto Rican, Mexican or Guatemalan.

Even within national identities, people have a strong regional pride. Hispanics as an immigrant group retain fierce cultural identities as well. Think how Americans define themselves (I guess it’s human nature): If asked where you hail from while abroad, you are American. If you’re within the United States, you might answer Georgia or Atlanta. Asked the same question in Atlanta, you might zero in on Buckhead. It’s all about context. Same with Hispanics. A Mexican client will proudly identify himself as Mexican but also —more specifically but as proudly—as a Sonoran.

Language

Obviously, language is central to our discussion. As with any immigrant group, a native Spanish speaker generally will prefer to deal with another Spanish speaker. Even those with a very capable grasp of English may prefer someone with whom they can communicate freely, in both cultural and language contexts. Language is a door for the client or potential client; it can open a common bond or a sense of shared history between people.

The Spanish taught in U.S. schools for the most part is not the language spoken by a typical client. This textbook Spanish is Castilian—named for the Castile region in Spain—but it can serve as a base for understanding spoken and written Spanish. Spanish, as any language, is a “living” thing. Just as we in the United States sound different from and use different words and phrases than other English-speaking nations, so the Spanish spoken by a Venezuelan will be different from that spoken by a Spaniard.

Staffing Needs

Whether or not you speak Spanish, a staff person who does can be indispensable. Even a receptionist with only enough vocabulary to field calls and welcome visitors can show that you want to be available to your new clients. Ultimately, you may end up speaking with them in English, but a positive impression from the first contact helps.

Using translators always is a possibility, of course. Because we are in a fact-sensitive profession, ensure that the translator understands and can convey not only word-for-word translation but also the context of the conversation—for both what you say to the client and what the client says to you. Small translation adjustments can affect, even sink, your case if they are off the mark.

A staff member dedicated in large part to translation will be most focused on this task—and an in-house translator would be ideal. . . . But an outside translator may be the only realistic option and may serve your needs just as well. Remember that the translator too is an extension of you and your office and must be trained in some technical aspects of confidentiality and what they can and, as importantly, cannot say to the client. The temptation for a non-Spanish-speaking attorney may be to allow the translator too much leeway, but supervision is no less crucial in this situation than in any other point of contact. “Debrief” what your staff has been doing to make sure they do it correctly and to the level of performance you require. Once you find a translator you like, consider ways to maintain the relationship so you don’t have to re-cover the basics for each case.

Of course, all of these decisions need to fit within your budget. Staffing decisions should take into consideration the skills you need to reach and serve the Hispanic client. After all, changing U.S. demographics all but guarantee that making your firm available to the Spanish-speaking community will pay dividends.

Tips

Absent having grown up in a Spanish-speaking household, what can solos or small firms do, learn, or change in order to best represent Hispanic clients?

• Certainly, learn Spanish. Short of this, experience the culture. This could actually be fun! The more you get out of the office and experience what your clients are all about, the better you can market to Spanish speakers, and the better positioned you are to represent them. Remember that there can be wide differences in individual cultures, but you have to start somewhere.
• Consider associating with or adding a staff attorney who speaks Spanish. This can help in marketing your services to the community, case preparation, and client relations.
• Schedule training in business Spanish for everyone who may interact with Spanish-speaking clients or their documents. Many vocational or technical schools in areas with Hispanic populations offer such classes. Different from programs that prepare tourists for vacation, these classes instead introduce and review specific terminology and phrases needed to communicate in professional contexts. No, it’s not as desirable as full fluency, but it can nonetheless get you to a level where effective communication is possible.
• Prepare a phone script for your staff. This is especially helpful if you already know Spanish but are having trouble finding bilingual staff. Phrases such as el licenciado no está, por favor llame mas tarde (“the attorney is not available, please call back later”) are relatively easy to learn and pronounce. (The script can even be spelled out phonetically.) Conveyed confidently, such phrases demonstrate that your office is making an effort to serve their needs. Other helpful phrases: su nombre, por favor (“your name, please”); su (número de) teléfono, por favor (“your phone number, please”); deletrear, por favor (“spell, please”); grácias (“thank you”).
• Translate important practice management documents into Spanish. I begin with my intake sheet, asking for contact information, how they learned about my office, names of other parties to the case, and what they hope to accomplish during the visit. I also include, and have them sign, a statement to the effect that the visit is only a consultation, I am not required to act on their behalf, and any representation will be by written contract only, signed by all parties. This is always important but especially so when you charge for the first consult. I have found that many Hispanics are used to doing business without contracts in their home countries, so it’s best to clarify the issue of your responsibility to act in the future. The most important document is your attorney-client agreement. For the above reasons, be clear about what this meeting will and will not accomplish.
• Some practices lend themselves to repeated visits, such as bankruptcy or uncontested divorce. Client questionnaires in Spanish speed up information gathering and also minimize return calls from clients for clarification of terminology. Reviewing the questionnaire with the client, whether done by you or a staff person, will make for more efficient use of your time.

 

Notaries vs. Notarios

In many Spanish-speaking countries, notarios are the officials empowered to submit legal documents to the court. They are equivalent to licensed attorneys in the United States. If Hispanic clients do not have a full understanding of American culture, they can easily mistake notaries public for notarios when seeking legal services in the United States. This has led to wariness of the legal system in Hispanics who have been misled by Spanish-speaking notaries public offering legal advice and services they are not qualified to dispense. In the United States, licensed attorneys properly refer to themselves as abogados in the Spanish-speaking community.

 

Frank E. Martínez is a sole practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. He appears regularly on Leyes Cotidianas, a public service television program in Georgia detailing issues of law for the Spanish-speaking community. He can be reached at fmlaw1@juno.com. He thanks attorney Deborah J. Torras for her contributions to this article.

 

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