What the term “multicultural clientele” means to you will depend on where you are, so for the purposes of this column it could refer to people who don’t share your background or people whose background is different from the majority population in your area.
When starting your practice or looking into new practice areas, it’s worth looking for underserved populations that may be in need of your services. It can be a match made in heaven for attorney and client alike.
Identify your niche, but remain open to possibilities. The clients you target will depend in part on your practice area; however, one client population may have legal needs in an area that complements your niche, in which case you may consider expanding your practice or forming a fruitful referral relationship with a colleague in that area.
Now, identify the clients. Here’s where we get down to specifics. As an immigration attorney, my “multicultural clientele” category is broad, but I began by reaching out to people whose language I spoke (Spanish speakers) and eventually to people whose language I learned (Brazilians). This isn’t to say that I turn anybody away, but I focus my outreach and marketing efforts in a few areas of higher return.
Next, research the group to find out how best to get your message out: Radio? Newspapers? Internet? Television? Word of mouth? Whose opinions do members of the community value? Where do they congregate? Who are the leaders of the community? Who might be in tune with their concerns? Who can help you attain visibility? This phase of research may be time consuming, but it can help you to avoid pitfalls. Don’t rush to spend money on marketing—unless you employ the correct method, you will burn through a great deal of money with little or no return on your investment.
Beyond the marketing research, it’s important to learn as much about your target group as possible. Here, cultural sensitivity is crucial: Violation of cultural norms and expectations, even unintentional ones, can mar your reputation in a given community. In closely knit communities, word of mouth travels quickly, so it’s best to avoid the sort of misstep that will stain your name. As a client once told me, “I don’t know any good lawyers, but I can give you the names of a lot of bad ones.” This part of your research calls for some reflection: Why should they trust you? How can you show them that you are the kind of attorney they need?
The following point should go without saying: Interest yourself in their culture. Learn as much about them as possible and be able to understand and make cultural references. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to learn their language, food, customs, music, and everything that makes them who they are, but a little bit of understanding goes a long way to helping you make connections with them and achieve their goals. On the other hand, accept that you weren’t born into the culture, and be aware of your imperfect understanding. This awareness must continue throughout the attorney-client relationship. As nineteenth-century Anglican archbishop Richard Whately once said, “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” For example, I was once preparing a client for an asylum hearing and could not, no matter how I phrased the question, elicit a key fact that was written in the asylum application. Finally, I asked the client, “How can I ask you a question in order to get you to say X?” I remember being surprised by the way he phrased it, and I suspect that it would have taken me considerably longer to have figured it out by myself.
Finally, what does the community value? Find this out and pay more than lip service. The community I work with values personal attention, thorough explanations, and emotional support through the process. If I go into “diagnose and cure” mode without bringing them along with me, I may think I’m being competent and efficient but wind up with no clients or, worse, a reputation for being cold and insensitive. On the other hand, I’ve worked with groups that valued such service and rejected anything beyond an arm’s-length, professional relationship. The beauty of all these differences is that by doing your research, you’re likely to find a group of clients who value what you do and whom you enjoy serving.