April 12, 2019 Practice Points

Five Tips Working with Persons with Limited English Proficiency

Advice on working with clients with diverse language backgrounds.

By Jonathan R. Engel

Working with clients with diverse backgrounds is one of my favorite aspects of my practice. It requires me to use an interpreter on a near-daily basis. Here are some basic tips to help make your next interaction with a person with limited English proficiency (LEP) better:

  1. Ask whether a person needs an interpreter if you are unsure. Some people are able to carry a conversation in English but need an interpreter to fully understand legal issues. For these individuals, it is important to exclusively use the interpreter while the interpreter is present for clarity.
  2. Determine whether an in-person interpreter or a telephone interpreter is appropriate. An in-person interpreter can be less expensive and higher quality for longer meetings than an interpreter through a telephone service. But an in-person interpreter requires more planning because it may take several days to schedule the interpreter, depending upon the language and locale.
  3. Ensure that the interpreter you are using is trained to interpret legal terms. Interpreting legal terms is a distinct skillset from other forms of interpreting. Check to see if the prospective interpreter is certified with your local courts or has the appropriate training.
  4. Be cautious using bilingual staff or a family member or friend of the LEP person. Being bilingual does not mean a person is qualified to interpret legal matters. If you have bilingual staff, ensure that they are qualified to interpret. An LEP person may not want to use a family member or friend to interpret a sensitive legal matter but believe he or she has no other choice. Keeping attorney-client privilege intact may be another consideration for avoiding using a family member or friend of the LEP person.
  5. Check in with the LEP person to ensure that he or she is understanding everything. Sometimes an interpreter is not qualified to interpret, which can be readily apparent or more subtle. Asking the LEP person is good practice because the LEP person might not want to call out the interpreter if he or she is having trouble understanding you. Do not be afraid to dismiss the interpreter if the LEP person is unable to understand you.

Jonathan Engel is a staff attorney at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is a contributing editor for the Consumer Litigation Committee. 


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