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Representing Spanish Speaking Clients

REPRESENTING SPANISH SPEAKING CLIENTS

By Wendy Squires

 

In the early 1980's when my husband and I started our small law firm, we struggled to distinguish ourselves in a sea of lawyers. We hired a pricey consultant to give us words of wisdom. The consultant saw our scuffed up shoes and kitchen table conference room. He paused, then said , "I’m not going to charge you anything, but I want you to ask yourselves, how are you different from all those other lawyers out there?" The obvious answer was that my partner could speak Spanish and was developing strong ties to the Hispanic community in Oregon. I was eager to learn Spanish and apply it in my job. We found a niche market that was under served. Our firm grew into a civil and criminal practice that now employs six lawyers and a large bilingual staff.

Build It and They Will Come

We were the first Oregon law firm to advertise in the Spanish media market. Since then, there have been dramatic changes as more lawyers try to attract Spanish speaking clients. Latino lawyers are not as rare as they were thirty years ago. The market is competitive. One example is the ad in the Spanish yellow pages that cost less than a thousand dollars annually twenty years ago now costs thousands monthly. A lawyer from Los Angeles now has the biggest ad in one Spanish directory.

There may be less competition for lawyers who are outside the Willamette Valley. Where we live, the edge for a competitive practice will require more than placing an ad. If you want a law practice that is bilingual, you must make decisions about who you really want to serve and how to serve them well.

The model to avoid is the practice where the lawyers don’t speak the language and the bilingual staff is one undertrained employee. Your firm won’t be easily accessible to the client and the client will feel frustrated with the communication. This combination with a high volume, low client contact practice model is really the worst. Don’t build a practice for Spanish speakers if your office is not user friendly. Be careful about making that one Mexican woman in your ad the only resource for your clients.

Learn the Language

If you want Spanish speaking clients, make an effort to learn the language. There are many resources including evening classes and low cost immersion programs in Mexico. It is better to do some book learning before going to an immersion program so you have a grammatical framework. Many adults are not adept at learning a foreign language, but some knowledge will help. The desire to learn the language is a commitment to understanding the culture. This makes us better advocates.

Wendy Squires represents individuals involved in person injury and wrongful death. Her firm,

Be Patient

If you are not fluent in the language, carefully examine your own personality to decide if you are suited to representing people who speak a different language. These clients will take much more of your time than your English speaking cases. It is a challange to work through an interpreter.

Be prepared to sweat. There are those moments of communication that are excruciating either because you aren’t connecting with your Spanish or your translator is not following your legalese/English. It can be a profoundly humbling experience.

Many of the people we represent come from countries where the legal system is vastly different. You may spend a significant amount of time explaining the American legal system. You may also be dealing with expectations that are not in line with the reality of what you can accomplish. For example, you may have to educate the client about American insurance contracts. The client may say "I bought full coverage so why aren’t they paying for the car?" You have to explain difficult concepts without becoming lost in translation. If you have a person doing interpreting in your office, a good resource is the training program for court certified interpreters offer through the county courts.

Carloads of Clients and Confusion

You will have to make more decisions about who you represent. Frequently you will be asked to represent a whole car load of clients. The family may not appreciate being sent to other lawyers for conflict reasons. The system is too difficult to access, so multiple lawyers are multiple headaches. This presents conflict issues over driver liability and limits. You need to exercise caution or you could be conflicted out of all the cases.

Try not to unnecessarily confuse your client. It may be advisable not to send carbon copies of all routine correspondence to your client. Invariably, if you send a carbon copy of a simple cover letter to an insurance company, you will get a telephone call asking what it is all about. Things that are written in English and not translated worry the non-English speaking client. Be careful too that your clients understand Spanish documents and letters. It is entirely possible they do not read Spanish and must have everything explained. If something is important, take the time to explain it in Spanish or translate it to Spanish.

You may be surprised to find your client’s first language is not Spanish. The client’s first language may be an Indian dialect. Question your client carefully about how well he or she understands Spanish. If you need a dialect interpreter, contact the court for certified interpreters.

Be prepared to have a "storefront" type law office, if not in reality, then in fact. Many Hispanic clients simply drop by to talk to their lawyer. It is also common to get walk-in clientele.

Hire the Bilingual Associate

If you really want a bilingual practice and you do not know the language, consider hiring a bilingual associate. The Oregon State Bar has an affirmative action program that can help you hire. It includes a summer clerkship program with a matching salary stipend. Maybe you will discover your future rainmaker. Firms are growing their practices by hiring associates who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Russian. Look at your community and see what legal needs are unmet. You may find your niche.

Give Back to The Community

If you earn money by representing Hispanics, give some of it back to the Hispanic community. There are so many opportunities to give. The Hispanic scholarship programs through Portland State University and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce immediately come to mind. There’s nothing better than handing a check to a promising young Latino scholar. It also is form of advertising and becoming known in the community. In Portland you can become a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Thirty years ago, the number of Hispanic business and professional people could fill a small living room. Now the number of Hispanic businesses, professionals and business serving Hispanic is enormous. There are many opportunities for networking.

Conclusion: Lawyers Without Borders

If you see law as an adventure that can open doors to other cultures, a bilingual practice might be for you. For those who take the time and effort to market their legal services effectively and staff their offices professionally, the result can be a rewarding experience for both the attorney and the client.

This article was originally published in the "Trial Lawyer", a publication of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, Spring 2011. The contents of this article are the opinions of the author and are not intended as legal advice.

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