It’s a Small, Small World: Broadening Your Multicultural Client Base

The Bencher—September/October

By Joy Baxter Ramsingh, Esquire

When Mr. B saw blue lights behind him, he immediately slowed down, indicated, and pulled over safely. The officer approached and said, “Hello, how are you today?” Mr. B, smiling, replied using one of the few English phrases he knew: “Fine, thank you.” The ensuing conversation consisted of my client staring bewilderingly as the officer asked him a series of routine questions, none of which he understood.

Mr. B, my client, was a C-suite executive for a software company in Burkina Faso. His cultural research taught him how to interact with the police, so thankfully, he did not offer the officer a bribe during the stop, a routine practice in some countries. However, his misunderstanding with the officer gave rise to my representation, which consisted of an explanation and a subsequent dismissal of the charges.

This interaction occurred in a small town in Tennessee, highlighting the reality that the nature of the practice of law is increasingly global and multicultural, regardless of where we choose to practice. While international clients are no different from any other client in many regards, they may require additional cultural and linguistic guidance as they navigate the U.S. legal system. The following practical tips present some ethical and pragmatic pitfalls to avoid.

Explore, dignify, and value the client’s culture

As always, before you meet with the client do research. There is a sense of complacency, especially among the well-traveled, that assures attorneys that they understand Latin American culture and commerce simply because they vacationed in Mexico. Avoid this hubris. Learn the form of the client’s native government, read scholarly articles on commercial transactions, and study cultural norms. For a good read on this topic, I highly recommend Terri Morrison’s “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries.”

Once you have this information, don’t rely on it exclusively. Use the information as a springboard for a conversation with your client. Don’t presume, even when you’re sure of what the cultural “norm” is. Instead, ask. Ask detailed, intentional questions about the client’s prior experiences with legal systems.

When I began to work with Mr. B, I researched his city of origin and realized that he immigrated to the U.S. with his family to avoid frequent terrorist attacks. Between my conversations with him and my own research, a picture of the political landscape of his hometown emerged, informing my advocacy goals for my client. The sense of dignity he conveyed made it clear that removing this incident from his record was incredibly important to him.

Similarly, the more you know about business relationships and legal institutions in your client’s home country, the better you can anticipate issues that will arise during a negotiation, transaction, or litigation process. For example, many cultures are not deadline driven, which can conflict sharply with a legal system that relies on harsh statutes of limitation and “time is of the essence” clauses. At times, you may need to impress upon clients the gravity or consequence of a specific action or inaction; in other instances, you may need to assure or comfort an anxious client who is worried that “nothing is happening” because no action has been taken on the case in weeks, especially if that client is accustomed to swift rulings by an arbitrator.

This research effort should be proportionate to the need for it, but even a small effort to appreciate your client’s understanding of the justice system will go far to build your client’s trust in you and in our legal institutions.

Never rely on family members, friends, or Google as interpreters

Communication, or the lack thereof, is one of the most frequent bases of bar complaints and malpractice suits. If you are going to serve individuals from other countries, the first step is to determine whether an interpreter is necessary. If so, find a certified court interpreter and keep that person’s contact information in the client file. When possible, try to use the same interpreter for meetings with the same clients, as clients will speak more comfortably with familiar faces in the room.

In instances where I have represented indigent individuals, I have encountered situations in which children are used as interpreters for parents. Many parents are accustomed to using their children to interpret, and in many situations, this is a viable communication solution.

However convenient (and inexpensive) this practice may be, there are obvious pitfalls. Parents may be unwilling to discuss illegal activity or financially distressful information in front of children, or they may try to explain the problem in a way that doesn’t frighten the child, thereby obscuring or eliminating facts. If a parent is about to lose her house, getting her to explain the full extent of the problem by relating the problem to her teenager can be difficult.

Use a certified interpreter whenever possible. Even if you or another attorney in your office has some experience with the subject language, there can be a significant issue with using a non-fluent interpreter. Informal linguistic acquisition can be dangerous to rely upon, as it is often strong in some areas and weak in others. For example, the brother of your small business owner client may be “fluent” when it comes to informal conversation, but he may be unable to interpret commercial transaction terms.

When clients are nervous, they may bring support individuals along with them. In cultures that promote strong family interdependence, you may find that several generations of family members will want to attend client meetings. Refresh your understanding of your state’s interpretive case law on what qualifies as “disclosure to a third party” for purposes of attorney-client privilege. If a friend is simply there for moral support, be prepared to explain the attorney-client privilege and ask that all individuals who are not the client, or the client’s agent, leave the room.

Finally, clients may be accustomed to using Google Translate or another artificial intelligence interpretation app as a communication device for business transactions. It’s far better to send an email through a certified interpreter to a client than to send an email in English to a non-English speaking client, leaving your client to find his own internet translation resource. Google Translate is often inaccurate (which I say with deep respect for its helpfulness to me as a tourist). If you type “Would you like to review your bill?” to a client and the client uses Google Translate to translate the phrase into Russian, the corresponding phrase is “Want to see your score?”

Due to some extenuating circumstances surrounding the representation, the court permitted me to interpret for Mr. B during his appearance, but I do not recommend this practice even if you are fluent and confident. First, it heavily distracts from the representation itself. Also, if you’re not a native speaker, it can be helpful to have another interpreter in the room to ensure comprehension, which leads to my next point.

It’s not sufficient for you to explain or disclaim; the client must understand.

For important meetings where decisions are being formed, meet in person if possible and in the presence of an interpreter. Ask the client to explain his understanding of the rights being waived or the issues being resolved. Document the steps taken to ensure comprehension. I repeat: Document the steps you took to ensure that the client understood what he was agreeing to. It doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming, but just taking the time to draft a short memo documenting the contact information and credentials of the interpreter and the concerns discussed with the client can go a long way to avoid a future complaint that the client didn’t understand what he was agreeing to.

Comprehension can require repetition or variants of explanations as to the effect or consequence of an action. Understand that the client may be impatient with your commitment to clarity and comprehension, but likewise understand that your reputation and competence as a practitioner depend upon such commitment. If you choose to engage a client who has a linguistic barrier, the Rules of Professional Responsibility do not bend with this choice. All of the same duties and obligations still apply. In addition to meeting those obligations, you should ask “Does the client actually understand?” and then “Have I documented this understanding in a way that protects both me and my client?”

The value of representing diverse clients

The practice of law can be disheartening. This is especially true when you have non-English–speaking clients. I once represented an injured non-English–speaking factory worker who was asked by his supervisor to sign a piece of paper that stated (in English, of course), “My injury did not happen at work.” At our first consultation, the client had a settlement offer in his workers’ compensation case for $500. When I notified opposing counsel that he had obtained competent legal representation that offer immediately jumped by thousands of dollars, without any offer of proof. My client had strong evidence from the outset, but it was not until he had an English-speaking professional on his side that any semblance of fairness developed in his case.

Multicultural clients are more than worth taking; they’re inspiring. These clients are the hardest-working people I know, and they typically exhibit an incredible moral compass. Indigent multicultural clients are unbelievably grateful for pro bono assistance, and such experience will give you an introduction to other cultures, as well as an opportunity to brush up on a second language—leading to future opportunities with international clients. Working with diverse clients presents the opportunity to explore and confront implicit biases also.

Perhaps most importantly, seeing the American legal system through an international client’s eyes can renew your passion for the profession, which benefits every other client in your practice.

Joy Baxter Ramsingh, Esquire, is an attorney licensed in Pennsylvania and Tennessee. She serves as an appeals officer at the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, where she adjudicates open records appeals and assists with amicus curiae litigation. She is a member of the James S. Bowman American Inn of Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

© 2020 Joy Baxter Ramsingh, Esq. This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.