Cultural Competence and Advising Law Clients

If you practice anywhere in the U.S., but especially in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural region such as most of Maryland, it’s important to stay ahead on cultural issues – both to be aware of common cultural patterns AND not to indulge mere stereotypes regarding cultural patterns.  The key word are “awareness” and “attention.”

Sometimes little things can matter practically in law practice.  A client with a non-English, especially non-European name may get her name mis-indexed in court records.  Chinese names are by custom surname first, and while many Chinese-American women take their husband’s surname that is not the custom in most of China.  Many native Spanish-speakers have multiple last names, but the first of the last names is the most important; the others reflect additional family relations but are not the names by which the surname is index.  E.g.  Mr. Arturo Lopez Hernandez is probably Mr. Lopez and not Mr. Hernandez, but may well be mis-indexed in a court document or other critical official paperwork in the U.S.  Naming conventions differ even within Europe; Hungary, Iceland and Russia all have different orders of names and/or patronymics.  Getting this RIGHT will facilitate both competent, efficient practice and client relations.

In many languages including almost all European languages other than English, many distinctions between formal language and modest of address and less formal modes may exist that have no direct analogs in Anglophone U.S. culture.  A German-speaker with two doctorates will expect in many instances to be addressed as “Frau/Herr Doktor Doktor ____________”; this sounds strange to American ears where professors are more likely to use their first names and less likely to insist on being addressed by academic title in all contexts.  The Korean and Japanese languages have exceptionally refined modes for expressing hierarchy and formality; the cultural expectations reflected in the “operating software” of those languages may in some cases have an effect on practical client relations.  In many cultures, the use of the first name can be a greater affront than in U.S. culture, although the opposite may be true in Australia where it’s even more common than in the U.S. to use first names in many business contexts.

The experience of clients with law and lawyers in other cultures may have a strong influence on the expectations of clients outside of Anglophone U.S. culture.  In many countries with weak civil institutions, the very concept of a lawsuit may be terrifying or a source of immense shame or dishonor; a Chinese-American attorney whom I respect has informed me that this is the case in much of China.  The U.S. has a rather uneven civil rights history to say the least, but the sorts of legal arguments made by civil rights organizations and civil liberties advocates in the U.S. to courts and to legislatures are often inconceivable elsewhere in the world.  Some people believe that they have a legal duty to self-incriminate (the exact opposite is true in the United States) based on their experiences in their home country; most regrettably, even theoretically educated American citizens with jobs as journalists get that wrong too.  In other countries, attorneys may routinely do things that, while accepted or tolerated there, would be mostly inconceivable here (e.g. ex parte communications with a tribunal, gifts that an American would call a bribe, etc.)

Different cultures have different senses of physical space.  In addition, religious values or morals may have a profound impact on the lawyer-client interaction.  I made a strong positive impact on an observant Muslimah (the female equivalent of “Muslim” in Arabic) client when I welcomed her warmly but did not extend my hand to shake hands; while her beliefs did not forbid a business handshake, she made a specific point of thanking me at the end of the consult when she extended her hand, telling me that she was happy that her attorney was both aware and respectful of her religious culture.  Some clients cannot accept business calls on their Sabbath or holy days.  Even with most religious Christians who are not forbidden strictly by conscience from answering the phone on Sunday or a fasting day, it is respectful to be aware of times when a non-emergency call might be more jarring.  A good question on a client questionnaire: “Please tell us if there are times when we should ABSOLUTELY NOT call you regarding your case.”

There are many other cultural issues that may play into both rapport with clients and technical competence in service delivery to client.  Conversely, it’s entirely possible to overstate the importance of culture; people, despite cultural tendencies, remain individuals.  An awareness of cultural issues may, in some cases, facilitate both good practice and good client relations.

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