Wisconsin Lawyer: Bridging Cultures: Tips for Managing a Multicultural Practice:

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    Bridging Cultures: Tips for Managing a Multicultural Practice

    Why would a client refuse even to look at an interpreter, possibly derailing an otherwise sound case? Obstinance? Doubtful. Shame at needing to use a legal system she knows nothing about? Maybe. How about fear and anger, because someone of the interpreter’s ethnicity burned the client’s village or worse? This is just one example of how the melting pot that is American society presents multiple opportunities and challenges for lawyers who represent clients from diverse cultures.

    Michael N. Balter & Jason M. Mishelow

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 82, No. 7, July 2009

    While working with a Laotian immigrant on a divorce, I wondered whether the client and I were truly communicating. There was little property to divide and no serious dispute about custody of the children, yet the case was taking much longer than the facts seemed to warrant. The client had limited English skills, and even when using an interpreter, I believed that the essential message was lost in translation. The client resisted my advice and wanted to make concessions that I believed were unnecessary. On further discussion with the client, I realized that her desire to conform to her cultural traditions was compelling her to give up more than Wisconsin law required.

    In particular, the client revealed a strong desire to give up what she referred to as the bots. The bots ultimately became the centerpiece of this case. Sensing my confusion, the interpreter served as a cultural liaison and explained to me that a bot is a measurement of gold. He also stated that Laotians often distrust banks. As a result of this distrust, Laotians often refuse to deposit money into banks for safekeeping or investment. Therefore, the parties had no official record of the value of the bots. After much research and discussion of the cultural division of bots and the traditional division of marital property in Wisconsin, the client agreed to seek a result that would comport with both her culture and the law.

    This type of story is common for the attorneys at Centro Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to low-income clients in Milwaukee County. Our clients come from Mexico, Latin America, Laos, Russia, and many other countries. Centro Legal’s attorneys have learned how to effectively deal with the challenges that arise in a multicultural practice, such as working with interpreters and dealing with clashes between law and culture. An attorney who decides to provide legal assistance to clients from different cultures must take time to understand the client’s culture because it will be an important factor in the case.

    Working with Interpreters

    Building relationships with quality interpreters is extremely important in a multicultural practice. Effective interpreters go beyond mere translation to help foster cultural understandings between the lawyer, the client, and the court. The use of interpreters is complex and represents both a challenge and a potential tool for the attorney. A good interpreter can also act as a cultural ambassador by bringing the lawyer and the client to a mutual understanding of the situation that they face.

    Lawyers need to make sure that an interpreter is qualified to do legal translation. Poor interpretation can lead to misunderstandings and a breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship. The attorney must recognize that the quality of interpreters varies greatly, especially for less-common languages like those spoken in certain parts of South Asia and the Middle East. There also is no guarantee that a court-supplied interpreter will provide quality interpretation, and there is no easy way to locate quality interpreters. The best way to find a good interpreter is through referrals. Local social service agencies, cultural organizations, and other lawyers who have experience with the client’s culture are good referral sources.

    It is the lawyer’s responsibility to make sure that the interpreter is providing quality translation. Even if a lawyer does not speak the client’s language, certain warning signs can show that an interpreter may be unqualified. One sign is when interpreters cannot do simultaneous translation and must ask you to repeat yourself because they forgot what they heard in midsentence. Also, be wary if the client’s language is the interpreter’s third or fourth language. Finally, interpreters who do not have a good command of the English language can create serious problems because the translations can be inaccurate at each end of the discussion. Lawyers can make the interpreter’s job easier, too, by avoiding linguistic nuances and subtleties. Speak in plain English.

    It is often helpful to meet with the potential interpreter without the client present and before going to court. This will allow the attorney to assess the interpreter’s English skills, knowledge of the legal system, and background with the client’s language and culture. It is important to realize that language fluency does not necessarily indicate cultural sensitivity or client-interpreter compatibility. For example, a Centro Legal attorney witnessed a difficult circumstance in which the litigant was Bantu and the interpreter was a Somali who spoke Bantu. This created a problem because the litigant claimed to have suffered at the hands of Somalis in his home country, and the litigant refused to even speak to the interpreter. These types of problems are commonplace in a multicultural practice but can be avoided at the outset of a case by carefully screening potential interpreters.

    To ensure that translations are accurate and that court hearings go smoothly for the client, the lawyer needs to pay attention to the interpreter’s in-court translation. The attorney should pay attention to the client’s reaction to questions. If a client is responding to questions in an awkward way, it can mean that the translation is not clear, or that the lawyer is asking bad questions. The attorney should make sure that the questions are short and jargon-free. During a testimonial hearing, a lawyer might find that the client is responding to questions with passive “yes” answers. Ask a simple open-ended question to gauge the client’s level of understanding and the accuracy of translation. For example, in a family case ask the client, “What days of the week will the children spend with their father?”

    Michael Balter Jason Mishelow

    Michael Balter, San Diego 2005, is a staff attorney at Centro Legal, Milwaukee, primarily practicing in criminal misdemeanor defense.

    Jason Mishelow, Georgetown 2002, is the senior attorney and finance officer at Centro Legal, practicing primarily in family law.

    Centro Legal is a nonprofit legal services organization located on Milwaukee’s south side. Founded in 1991, its staff attorneys serve approximately 1,500 low-income individuals each year. Half of Centro Legal’s staff are bilingual Spanish-speakers, and the organization routinely partners with interpreters from other cultures to serve the diverse client group seeking legal assistance.

    Do not hesitate to bring your concerns about an interpretation to the court’s attention. Let the court examine the client to measure if he or she has a good understanding of what is happening. It is more efficient to ask for an adjournment than to attempt to set aside a judgment or order on the basis of a client’s lack of understanding. Also, it is important to maintain communication with the court officials responsible for arranging interpreters. Tell them who is good and who is not. Do not be afraid to ask for a specific interpreter. The coordinators welcome such feedback, which improves the system for everyone.

    While the use of interpreters presents many challenges, it also presents a tremendous opportunity for attorneys. The best interpreters serve as cultural attachés for the lawyer and the client. They can help the attorney understand the culture and can suggest ways of explaining legal concepts that will foster greater understanding. A good interpreter can work as a linguistic and cultural bridge between the attorney and the client. Attorneys must not fail to use this potential resource.

    The Clash of the Case and Culture

    A client’s culture plays a large role in how a client decides to handle a case, and lawyers should be aware of the cultural underpinnings that affect the client’s actions. Our clients often bring with them their notions of their home countries’ justice system. They also tend to have unrealistic views of the American justice system, which are reinforced inside the protective enclave of the client’s cultural community. Lawyers must be aware that the client who comes to the office is stepping out of that enclave. Attorneys should take extra steps to understand the level of conflict between the parties and the type and complexity of the disputed issues.

    Clients’ cultural experiences heavily influence their decisions about when to enter the court system. Cultural communities primarily composed of recent immigrants often are insular. These groups have not only traditional laws and values but also traditional systems of enforcing and applying these rules. For example, in many Hmong communities, respected elders are expected to resolve disputes, and so these traditional counsels often are the forum of initial resort. When a litigant from another country seeks a lawyer’s help to resolve intracultural disputes, it often is because the traditional cultural institutions cannot resolve the problem.

    Emerging from an insular community is difficult. The individual seeking help from the American legal system often is going against mores that date back generations. These clients often have already sought a traditional solution to their problems but feel that these systems failed them. As a result, clients from insular communities often seek legal assistance later than do other clients and present the type of case that we would refer to as “high conflict.” These clients know that their actions may result in their community members ostracizing them.

    Many potential litigants will endure many indignities before they will seek help from the American courts. Many family law clients come to Centro Legal telling stories of years of abuse and subjugation. Sometimes these stories seem too severe to be true, and an attorney may think that the clients are exaggerating. Often, however, the facts bear out the allegations. It is important to investigate these stories before assuming that they are not true, and to factor in considerations of the cultural barriers that can serve to delay a client’s efforts to seek redress in the Wisconsin courts.

    A litigant’s cultural heritage also can affect the complexity and type of litigated issues. Many immigrant communities are highly distrustful of government institutions. For some groups, this stems from abuses they suffered in their country of origin; for others it stems from bigotry they have suffered since arriving in the United States. Regardless of the cause, the distrust often manifests in two ways: 1) avoidance of the use of bank accounts, and 2) complicated co-ownership of property by family members.

    When clients avoid using banks it becomes problematic for a lawyer because without bank records it is virtually impossible to give the court an accurate statement of the party’s net worth. The only proof of liquid assets is the party’s statement declaring the amount. It is difficult to discuss property division when there is no documentation of any cash transactions between parties. Co-ownership of property also can create complex legal situations. In many cases, real estate is owned not just by the husband and the wife but also by both spouses’ families. There is no perfect way to resolve these difficulties, but the attorney must ask enough questions to recognize these realities in the early stages of representation.

    Finally, culture can affect a case by effectively barring litigants from court-created support programs. For example, Wis. Stat. section 767.401 requires all divorcing parties with children to go through a program to educate the parties about the effects of divorce on children. This class is offered only in English and Spanish. Litigants without these language capabilities have two choices: Sit through a class they do not understand, or ask for a waiver to the requirement. In either situation the parent misses out on important tips for helping the children cope with the divorce.

    The Attorney as Cultural Ambassador and Educator

    Lawyers who work with clients from different cultures should take steps to educate themselves about the client’s culture. One of the easiest ways for a lawyer to develop this understanding is to create relationships with relevant social service agencies, which often can recommend interpreters and explain cultural issues that will be important to clients. Clients also can benefit from interaction with these agencies, especially if they are not already connected to local services and resources. Though these agencies cannot solve every problem, a lawyer who has working relationships with a diverse group of community resources is better equipped to run a multicultural practice.

    Working with a diverse group of clients requires attorneys to ask more questions and to avoid making assumptions about behavior. Also, it is important not to assume that one fully understands a client’s cultural realities simply because one worked with other clients from the same culture. It is helpful to ask many follow-up questions, bearing in mind that our limited experience in the culture only gives the chance to learn more.

    Finally, a lawyer must keep in mind that his or her most important role is to make sure that clients from different countries understand exactly what is happening and why. A lawyer cannot assume that the client has an understanding of the U.S. court system. At the beginning of a case, a lawyer must take the time to explain the court system to the client and to clearly communicate what the client should expect throughout the case. Always remember that different clients will have different levels of understanding, based on their education level and how long they have been in the United States.


    Multicultural practices are interesting because the lawyer faces a wide range of problems. In addition to legal challenges, the lawyer faces cultural and linguistic challenges. It is the lawyer’s job to resolve all of these problems for the client. In this sense, the lawyer who represents clients from different cultures is the ultimate diplomat.