I guess by now you’ve figured out that on a daily basis you experience, share, meet, but most importantly retain folks from many countries who at times resist being part of a “melting pot.” The region of Latin America, to take one example, is composed of more than 30 countries; when you factor in an average of 15 provinces per country (and that may be a low estimate), we’re really talking about 450 regions. Recognizing these distinctions is a crucial part of your job as a lawyer. When you recognize the identity of your client, you put yourself in an excellent position to be more productive for your client—and more profitable.
It is difficult to anticipate the nationality or customs of every client or prospective client, but there are certain strategies that will make this process easier:
- Show respect. When you meet clients for the first time, always greet them with a title. Using examples from Latin America, this may be “Don,” “Señor,” “Señora,” or “Señorita” if you go the full-on Spanish route, or “Mr.,” “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” in English. Treating clients with respect is always essential; it may be particularly appreciated by those who in their country of origin were “Don Alberto” or “Doña María” or “Licenciado Torres,” but in this country have been required to work in any job that is available. After breaking the ice, you can ask how they prefer to be addressed. Usually it will be by a first name.
- Talk to your client. While you may feel that an “ice-breaking” tactic is inconvenient or off-putting, trust me, it isn’t. Asking a basic question such as “Where are you originally from?” (and truly listening when they describe their origins) will greatly improve communication and empathy with the client. More importantly, it shows your willingness to learn more about your client’s culture.
- Watch your colloquialisms. Many times, you use idioms in your daily life as a shorthand; remember that clients from another culture may be unfamiliar with these idioms. In the same way, there are words the client might understand in a different way from you. It is vital to be specific and clear with your message.
- Do a little research. If you have the opportunity to know your client’s place of origin, investigate some cultural norms and the way in which they express them.
Of course, there are also certain approaches you should avoid:
It is easy to form stereotypes depending on your client’s country of origin and then involuntarily generate comments that could be out of touch—and sometimes plain offensive. For example, if you learn that your client is Salvadoran, avoid small talk such as “I love pupusas” (a popular Salvadoran dish). Or, if your client is Mexican, don’t say “I heard the best tacos in the city are on Main Street—unless you can recommend me a better spot?” You may have the best of intentions to be relatable, but this approach is simply the wrong move. And pretending to know about a region’s general culture just because you went there on vacation is out of the question.
The best approach is to ask more questions of your client as an individual—and then listen. At that point your client will open up, generating effective communication because you are learning about your client’s culture by adjusting with simple steps of verbal communication, as well as your nonverbal communication. It is also necessary to rethink your own culture by assimilating what you can learn from your client; to develop cultural empathy, you cannot be closed to new ideas or lifestyles.
Now, technology also plays a fundamental role in your attorney-client relationship because it has made everyone accessible and available at all times with just one click through e-mail, social media, or WhatsApp, to name just a few. But be careful. Even through this medium, we must keep cultural differences in mind.
At the end of the day, you are offering your legal services, but once your client identifies that you are relatable, you can relax and do what you do best: fighting for your client’s rights.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 5, December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.