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Practice Management

Using Language Assistance Services during Legal Representation

Alison Schurick and Reba Letsa


  • The linguistic diversity in the United States necessitates language assistance services, such as document translation, live interpretation, and computer programming, to bridge gaps. These services protect clients' legal rights, expand law firms' global reach, and reduce the risk of errors and misunderstandings.
  • However, considerations like localization, subject matter expertise, privacy, certification, and cost are vital when using such services.
  • Inaccurate legal translations can have severe consequences, so it's crucial to employ qualified professionals and adhere to best practices to navigate the legal system confidently and efficiently.
Using Language Assistance Services during Legal Representation

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Communicating effectively with clients is the cornerstone of a successful legal practice. Effective communication builds the client’s trust and confidence in the lawyer, avoids misunderstandings, manages client expectations, facilitates client participation, and plays a critical role in achieving successful outcomes. But what happens when a language barrier precludes effective lawyer-client communication?

This is not a theoretical issue. Today, an estimated 350 to 430 languages are spoken in the United States, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, and nearly one-quarter of the population is bilingual. This linguistic diversity, coupled with the increasing global mobility of individuals and businesses, can make it difficult for clients to navigate legal systems and communicate effectively with their lawyers. Fortunately, different types of language assistance services can help lawyers bridge language gaps and ensure that linguistic differences do not impede equal and fair access to and participation in the justice system. 

Types of Language Assistance Services and Technologies

Various language assistance services and modern technologies are available to help clients and lawyers overcome language barriers. The most common of these are:

  • document translation,
  • live interpretation, and
  • computer programming.

Document Translation

Document translation refers to converting written text from the source language to the target language without compromising the original text’s meaning or accuracy. This service is commonly used to translate legal documents such as birth certificates, pleadings and motions, immigration documents, contracts, marriage and divorce decrees, and transcripts. 

Live Interpretation

Interpreter services convert speech from its source language to the target language in real time. Most often, interpreter services are utilized in courtroom or trial settings, during interviews and depositions, and for client meetings. Because a speaker’s tone, emphasis, and nonverbal expressions can be important indicators in speech, interpreters must pay close attention to these and other cues to ensure accurate delivery.

Computer Programming

Computer programming technologies can assist with interpreting and translating verbal speech in the source language into written text in the target languages. While these technologies provide swift and easily accessible language assistance, like any computer-assisted service, they come with inherent risks to complete accuracy and efficacy.

Benefits of Language Assistance Services and Technologies

There are many important benefits to utilizing language assistance services and technologies in legal representation. Most fundamentally, these services can protect a client’s legal rights and ability to participate in the legal system fairly. In addition, they can allow lawyers and law firms to expand their global reach and serve clients from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Further, language assistance services can minimize the risk of errors, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between clients, legal professionals, and the courts, reducing the risk of lawsuits and malpractice claims. Indeed, a poorly or incorrectly translated document may not only be unhelpful and difficult to understand but also have dire legal consequences. For example, even a single translation error in a citizenship document may result in the individual’s application for citizenship being denied or rejected. A reputable, experienced, qualified legal translation service can help avoid these outcomes.

Important Considerations When Using Language Assistance Services and Technologies

When considering a language assistance service such as legal translation or interpretation, there are a few points of good practice to keep in mind:


Beyond fluency in both the source and target languages, a language assistance service should have a deep understanding of the target language’s culture, customs, and legal systems—a process known as localization. Localization ensures that the translation accurately reflects the original intent of the source and its subject matter. Without localization, there is a risk that when translated, seemingly innocuous phrases or terms will carry unintended connotations that offend the target audience and discredit the translation. This can be particularly critical when the translation involves concepts or terminology unique to a particular legal system. For example, the phrase “pleading the Fifth” (i.e., an individual’s invocation of their constitutional right to remain silent) is unique to the United States legal system. Without a comprehensive understanding of the United States legal system, the concept and legal significance of that phrase will likely be unknown to a translator, creating the risk that this concept quite literally gets “lost in translation.”

Subject Matter Expertise

In addition to localization, a language assistance service should have a strong familiarity with and experience in the specific legal industry and subject matter at issue. Indeed, legal documents may feature terminology and jargon unique or specific to a certain legal domain or specialty. For example, documents related to intellectual property matters may contain certain legal terms common in the intellectual property industry but not necessarily fully understood by other lawyers, such as the differences between patents, copyrights, trademarks, and licenses. To ensure that the translation or interpretation is accurate, precise, and relevant to the legal context of the original source, a language assistance professional must be able to recognize and comprehend these terminologies confidently.

Privacy, Confidentiality, and Security

Entrusting a language assistance service with confidential legal documents implicates an attorney’s ethical duty to maintain client confidentiality. Thus, it is imperative to ensure that the language assistance service being used maintains a strict confidentiality policy and complies with all data privacy laws and regulations, including, for example, those designed to protect the confidentiality of sensitive patient health information (i.e., HIPAA). The language assistance service should also have robust measures in place to protect against information breaches and other security threats, which may include the use of encryption tools and password-protected transmission of documents.

Certification and Compliance

Because the consequences of legal translation errors can be severe, it is critical that language assistance services ensure their professionals are properly certified and comply with all applicable rules, regulations, and ethical obligations. In some settings, specific accreditations and certifications may be required to validate the language assistance professional’s qualifications and the accuracy of their work. If a language assistance service or professional cannot meet legal requirements, the reliability, relevance, and integrity of their work may be at risk. So, too, may an attorney’s ethical duties and responsibilities.


The cost of using a language assistance service will vary depending on several factors, including:

  1. number of words,
  2. timing,
  3. content type,
  4. source and target languages,
  5. use of technology, and
  6. complexity.

Different language assistance services likely will offer different pricing models based on these and other variables, but almost all will require an investment. To maximize that investment, evaluating these factors as the matter or translation project evolves is important, as the “value” or significance of one or more of these factors may change. For example, computer programming technologies may be sufficient to translate certain content quickly for internal use only at the early stages of a litigation matter, but if that matter proceeds to active and intense litigation, more comprehensive and sophisticated translation services may be necessary.

The legal translation field is complex, nuanced, and filled with intangibles. Still, it offers a variety of resources and tools designed to help lawyers and clients overcome language barriers without compromising accuracy, reliability, and integrity. Because a mistranslation or translation error can be fatal to an individual or organization, it is critical that lawyers utilize language assistance services and professionals who are qualified, experienced, and follow best practices. In doing so, lawyers and clients can bridge language barriers and navigate the complexities of the legal system with confidence and efficiency.