Monday, December 6, 2010

Lost in Translation. The Advantages of a Bilingual Law Practice

The world has become an exceedingly smaller place. Not surprisingly, proficiency in a foreign language can be quite a desirable and marketable skill.  It has even been said that a person who speaks two languages is worth two people.  For a job seeker, it can be an edge over other applicants.  For an attorney, it can open a whole new market of potential clients. One should not underestimate the draw of having an attorney who can converse in a client's native tongue. There is a certain level of comfort in being able to communicate in your own language.  This is especially true when it comes to legal matters where discretion is desired. So unless one of those languages is Klingon, why on earth would you choose to leave such a beneficial skill off your resume?

I offer myself as an example.  As the son of immigrants, I grew up speaking both Polish and English.  I considered my fluency in Polish a somewhat useless skill that only served a purpose at family functions.  In my mind, juggling would have been a better skill to possess. I never imagined the language would become a staple of my daily law practice.  I soon learned it would come in quite handy in my professional life.  Like most young lawyers, many of my first clients were made up primarily of friends and family.  Although they spoke perfect English, some preferred speaking to me in their native language.  I obliged. Word soon started getting out that a local attorney was able to give consultations in Polish.  I had stumbled into a niche.

While the Nutmeg State had an estimated 300,000 Polish residents, only a handful of area attorneys actually spoke the language.  I was surprised to learn that the community was severely underrepresented.  You could count the Polish speaking attorneys on one hand.  As an experiment, our firm elders decided to open a little branch office in New Britain, a small Connecticut city with a large Polish population.

The Outpost
Not unlike Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, the firm sent me to our new frontier outpost to live among the natives.  Our main office was located the elegant Munsill-Borden mansion.  I had a corner office with views of the capital dome.  The "outpost" was a former cell phone shop.  It had one room with a desk and was located between the Polish church and a popular meat market.  A large pole (a cement pole, not an actual Polish person) abutted my desk and blocked my view of the client sitting across my desk.  An air conditioner over the main entrance dripped water on those who entered.  I was only supposed to be there once a week.  Little did I know that I would never return to the bright lights of Hartford.  Within a few weeks, the ramshackle office had clients lining the sidewalk outside.  They were desperately seeking legal help with divorces, personal injury matters, criminal defense, and real estate closings.  Soon other attorneys sought out our services when dealing with Polish clients.  I was asked to prepare contracts for one of Europe's largest furniture distributors and to prepare immigration papers for Polish recording artists performing in the United States. 

The waiting room in our second New Britain Office.
Within a few months, our firm had outgrown our modest branch office.  We began seeing the potential in New Britain.  The city had a minor league baseball team, several museums, restaurants and the downtown had signs of a revitilization.  We decided to invest in a building in the Polish district that was minutes from the courthouse.  We hired Polish speaking staff and added Polish magazines to our waiting room. We set up a Polish version of our website and I joined several Polish organizations.  Word of mouth quickly spread. Move over Bobby Vinton, there was a new Polish prince in town.

Smelling the blood in the water, competing firms began dipping their toes in our pool.  I began noticing an influx of ads in the local Polish language papers.  I was no longer "Mr. Lonely."  Other firms suddenly had Polish speaking secretaries and "paralegals". A second law firm popped up on our street.  One firm went as far as to throw a suit on a guy and appointed him their "Director of Business and Marketingu."  (That is not a typo.  The word they used was "marketingu.")   They even prepared a spot on Polish television with their lawyers confidently walking shoulder and shoulder to the techno version of the Mission Impossible theme.  Youtube where were you when I needed you?  But enough about me.  If you are considering incorporating another language into your practice, here are a few things to consider:

It's Not Only Spanish.  Did you grow up speaking Portugese, Italian or the Holy Grail of Spanish?  Do you use your skill in your professional life?   Some people think that Spanish is the only other language that is useful in law practice.  While a knowledge of Spanish is great, you should not discount any other languages you may happen to speak.   Take a closer look at your surroundings.  Depending where you practice, you may be surprised to learn that there is a community out there who would find your services desirable. Take the Bayou state. Many wouldn't think of Louisiana as a place where your knowledge of Vietnamese would come in handy.  Did you know that the Vietnamese community makes up 44% of Asians living in the state.  Do you do estate work?  I am sure you can find a group of Italian grandmothers who would love to use your services.  Do you speak Portuguese?  Maybe you haven't noticed the influx of immigrants from Brazil.  Practice in Brooklyn? Call grandma and thank her for teaching you Russian. Think of it this way.  Imagine getting into a little legal trouble in a foreign land.  You are given the choice of two comparable lawyers.  One speaks English.  Who do you pick?

Advertising:  If you plan to market yourself to a particular group, consider where you advertise.   In a tight knit community, the local foreign language paper is often an important resource for information.  I have found that a small ad in such a paper will cost you significantly less and will be far more effective than even a full page ad in the yellow pages.

Proficiency.  Obviously your proficiency in a language will have an impact on your effectiveness.  Your two years of highschool Spanish might not be enough.  Giving legal advice in another language often requires the added knowledge of legal terms.  For example, calling it a "restraining ordero" won't cut it.  of course, fluency in the language will put you at a tremendous advantage in a variety of situations.  In my own practice, there have been numerous occasions where I have had cause to correct a translator.  A mistranslation can have a negative impact on your case.  I recall one deposition where an interpreter's poor translation would have led to a dismissal of our case.  Had I not been able to speak the language, I would have never caught the mistake.

Of course, if you plan to give legal advice in another language, you must make sure you are accurate and the client understands what you are trying to say.   I learned this the hard way. In my defense, Polish can be a rather difficult language to master. In one troubling incident I wanted to tell a divorce client that she had "endured much" throughout her ordeal. Unfortunately, I mispronounced the word "endure" and wound up telling her that she "really got fat."  In a more recent language fumble, I mispronounced a client's name. I introduced him to my law partner as "Mr. Prostitute." Again, Polish can be a rather difficult language to master.

Be Wary of Cross Cultural Misunderstandings:  Understanding cultural nuances can be as important as knowlege of the language itself.  For example,  in many European and Latin American countries, a notary is usually the equivalent of an attorney.  In the United States, a notary basically witnesses signatures and administers oaths.  Unlike foreign notaries, American notaries are not lawyers.  Not surprisingly, unscrupulous individuals take the opportunity to play up the confusion.  The end result is usually the illicit practice of law by a non-lawyer.  Some cultures demand punctuality.   Other clients may think its OK to come to their scheduled noon appointment at two.  Your clients might even come from a country where it is not commonplace to even make appointments.   

Here are a few additional tips to consider from the Nutmeg Lawyer and
Arabic:  I have been told that in Arabic, you must say "yes"  a few times to be taken seriously.  One "yes" is not enough.  Know that a good old fashioned American "thumbs up" to your client can be considered obscene.   Also remember that the left hand is generally considered "unclean."  I have also been instructed never to ask about a female member of a devout Muslim's family.

Japanese Clients: For your Japanese clients, avoid using large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions and any dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands and to do so could distract your host.  Business cards ( "meishi") are given and received with both hands. It is a good idea to print in your home language on one side and Japanese on the other. Present the card with the Japanese language side up. Understand that the Japanese prefer not to use the word no. If you ask a question they may simply respond with a yes but clearly mean no. Understanding this is critical in the negotiation process.  Also, keep in mind the number 4 is bad luck, because in Japanese it sounds like the word ‘shuh-shuh’, which sounds like the word for death.

Brazilian Clients:  Many areas of the country have seen an influx of Brazilian immigrants.  A knowledge of Portuguese is definitely a plus. If you have Brazilian clients remember that three-piece suits carry an "executive" connotation, whereas two-piece suits are associated with office workers. The OK hand signal a rude gesture in Brazil.  Make appointments at least two weeks in advance. Never start into business discussions before your host does.  Subjects to avoid: Argentina, politics, poverty, religion, and the Rain Forest

New Yorkers:  Avoid discussing your love of the Red Sox or New Jersey.  Do not make eye contact.  When stepping into traffic learn to yell "hey, I'm walkin here!" 
I am now in the process of improving my Spanish with Rosetta Stone software.  I hope to regain the proficiency I had in college.  With luck, I will soon be fluent in both Polish and Spanish.  (Kielbasa and Que Pasa, if you will..... stop rolling your eyes.)  Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject.


Joe Markowitz said...

What kind of coincidence is it that we both posted photos of Bill Murray in the same movie on the same day?

Corinne A. Tampas said...

I think you make an excellent point about language, but you actually made a second point that is equally important. That is, when you were in that branch office, you went to where the clients were, in their neighborhood.

Too often attorneys want to open up an office across the street from the courthouse or where all the other lawyers have their offices in some high rise office. This can really intimidate clients no matter what language is spoken.

Adrian Mark Baron said...

Thank you Corinne and Joe. Appreciate the comments.

Roberto said...

I came over here by Google just wondering how to improve my english communication skills and I just read about your desire to learn... spanish. Instantly I said wow! it seems like we are on the same side of the road as we are seeking for new professional prespectives and clients.

By the way, I am a chilean attorney and I am looking for a chance to practice both english and spanish in a professional context.

So I really appreciate your advice regarding career development.

Saludos cordiales,


PD: Do not laugh at me, but my main office is located aside our High Court. XD

Norman Solberg said...

In Japan, the words for four and death are both "shi." That's why most use the alternative "yon" for four. But you were close. ;)

Norm Solberg, American Lawyer In Japan

elder financial abuse said...

There is just something about lawyers that makes us want to compete with each other. I guess they want to get the Polish market too. Sharks are a perfect analogy to it.