The ability to speak more than one language is beneficial to people in many industries; for matters of customer service, worker safety, even heightened communication between staff members who often times, especially in the era of globalization, converse with one another from opposite corners of the globe. One sector where it is very important that professionals have the ability to communicate with the people that they serve is that of attorneys. The importance of understanding clients’ language, and legal needs is paramount; in some cases maybe even a matter of life and death. Here, Richard Bobholtz, Managing Attorney at R. W. Bobholz Law and Hubpages contributing writer, shares his perspective on the topic.
Guest post by Richard Bobholz
As a lawyer, effective communication skills are not just something that helps my business, but also an ethical rule of our practice. That means we must find some way to ensure our clients understand enough about what we’re saying to make an informed decision. Typically, that means hiring an interpreter when our clients do not speak English, but I’ve always been the type of person who would rather learn a skill set than rely on someone else to do it for me, where I can. With interpreters, I’ve always been concerned that the interpreter would have to call in sick, or couldn’t find the place. Or, what would happen if the interpreter got the translation wrong? After all, even English to English conversations get the meaning wrong when speaking in legalese.
My Background in Languages
In order to understand my fascination with language, we must step back a few years. While in law school, I learned there was a significant need for lawyers who understood what the Deaf community was going through. To that end, I started learning American Sign Language, and I have kept with it to this day. I’m now able to attend Deaf events and converse with only a few areas where I don’t understand. It was somewhere between then and now that I discovered language is at the heart of community. With this in mind, when one of my first pro bono clients was in the process of opening a half-way house for Spanish speaking individuals, I knew what my next language goal was going to be.
Taking only a couple hours a week to learn, I’m making progress towards the goal of speaking Spanish. The way I see this process, it is no different than the hours we have to spend each year learning areas of law. The purpose of learning the language is so we can better offer our skills and understanding to our clients.
How Does This Make Us Better Lawyers?
There are a few reasons learning another language makes us better lawyers. First, it opens the door to more cultural opportunities. If I’m able to speak Spanish, I can spend time out in the Spanish speaking communities and learn from them, just like I do with ASL. Second, we suddenly have a larger client base or more career opportunities. People would much rather hire an attorney who spoke their language. Interpreters are a hassle, and prolong the conversation. Third, it keeps our minds open. All too often, I see attorneys get stuck in a system they’re used to. I don’t want to be that type of attorney, so I have time set aside for myself and any employees I hire to learn something other than law.
Typically, only certain areas of law are thought to need a second or third language like immigration and criminal law, but every area of law comes with people who communicate better in one language or another. I’ve attended business events specifically for the Deaf community before, so I’m certain there are similar events for all languages and cultures. Imagine being the only small business attorney who spoke Spanish fluently in a city where a Spanish business startup event took place. You’d be at a distinct advantage over other attorneys because you’re a part of the culture already.
Knowing a second or third language can be a niche as well. As I stated before, people prefer not to use interpreters, so advertising that you’re fluent in a language entices those who would need the interpreter to come to you first.
How About Me Specifically?
Well, I’m not to the point where I can go out and carry on a conversation with ease unless the conversation is about the table being inside the house. La mesa esta en la casa. I figure within a couple of months, I will approach my client and ask to start conducting a half-hour of our meetings in Spanish. As he has been learning from me this whole time, I’m sure he will be delighted to start paying me back with his knowledge. Although it will be years before I can say I’m good enough to avoid hiring an interpreter, I’ll be able to catch when the interpreter makes mistakes and I’ll be more aware of the culture I’m working with.
Richard Bobholz is an attorney in Durham, North Carolina focusing on small business, estate planning, asset protection and taxation work. He is passionate about these areas and the clients who seek out his help, and when he is not practicing law, he is helping others with their business startups. You can view some of his recent articles here (check out his review of Livemocha here) or visit his law firm’s site at http://bobholzlaw.com/.