Respecting Cultural Differences

Vol. 1, No. 9

Joshua Daley Paulin practices immigration law in Boston, Massachusetts. He blogs at http://bostonimmigrationblog.com. Josh also respects cultural differences with his Panamanian wife/office manager.

 

  • Learn how to follow your clients' lead with respect to cultural conventions.
  • Learn about avoiding generalizing within a culture.

 

Whether you practice law in a linguistically diverse city, have a practice area that focuses on foreign clients (such as immigration law), or are fortunate enough to be hired by a non-English-speaking client, the opportunity for a cultural connection is there—as well as the potential for misunderstanding. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

 

Be Patient!

Where there are problems with effective communication, the possibility for frustration—for both the client and the attorney—increases. Your presence in your clients’ lives in many cases indicates a stressful legal situation; making clients feel rushed only increases their stress level.

 

Make Sure You Hear What They’re Trying to Convey to You

When speaking our own language, sometimes what we don’t say is as important as what we do say. And when we converse with others, there’s an expectation that the listener is “reading between the lines.” When a client isn’t a native or fluent speaker of our primary language, this shouldn’t be a given. Watch your client; make sure he or she seems comfortable with the conversation—that there aren’t any unresolved issues causing unease.

 

Learn the Language

If you deal frequently with a specific linguistic group, make the extra effort to learn the language, or at least some basic phrases—even if it’s just “I don’t speak [insert language] very well!” This minimal effort may put foreign-speaking clients at ease.

 

Understand What Your Clients Expect of a Lawyer

For example, you may have covered all the legal angles thoroughly and are ready to end the meeting, but your client’s expectation is that the lawyer will also commiserate. Conversely, in some cultures the attorney-client relationship is so formal that the client will likely be offended should you ask what to you may seem an innocuous question (“How are your kids?”), but to them is extremely personal.

 

Understand Cultural Conventions

Some clients will want to hug you; others will be standoffish. Take the cue from the client and follow your client’s lead. Again, if you find yourself dealing often with people from one particular country, make the effort to learn about it and its people.

 

Translator Issues

Even when an interpreter speaks the same language as your client, there may be gaps in understanding because of obscure colloquialisms and different usages. It may be helpful to have access to translators and interpreters from the same country as the client when possible. Where the interpreter is on your staff, make the effort to ensure that the relationship is between attorney and client, not translator and client—it adds complexity, to say the least, if a client sees an interpreter as an advocate to the advocate!

 

Be Open to Connections With Different Cultures

It can be wonderfully mind-expanding and enriching to take the time to learn about your clients and their backgrounds.

A final caveat: treat everyone as a person, not as the personification of a particular culture. And try not to generalize even within cultures: keep in mind that we all have cultural sensitivities. During World War II, Americans from the South stationed in England ran the gamut from bemused to offended when Brits referred to them as “Yanks!”

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