Why Your Lawyer Should Be Culturally Competent

by Maia Aron | June 2019

It goes without saying that an important part of the legal business in Miami is tied to Latin America. Consider this hypothetical: in a complex commercial case, the client is from a Latin American country. Obviously, it is important to have an attorney on your team who speaks Spanish. In Miami, there are many attorneys who can read documents and communicate in Spanish. But is that enough? Many times it is, but not always. Sometimes the key to really cracking the case and achieving a positive result is cultural, rather than linguistic. Obviously, there is a lot of translation back and forth when reviewing documents for and communicating with a foreign client. But a good lawyer who speaks the same language as the client should also be culturally competent. The lawyer can translate documents and talk to the client in Spanish or another foreign language, but if the lawyer doesn’t understand the culture, he or she won’t get to the heart of the matter.

In depositions or discovery, the lawyer needs to understand what happened and what went wrong in order to build a successful offense or defense for the client. Without the necessary cultural background, it can be easy to miss this guidepost. The lawyer needs to take culture into account when developing the facts with the goal of creating the winning narrative.

1. In Latin America, business is often done on a handshake.

    The transaction that forms the basis for the litigation may not have been papered like it would have been in the United States. This has several ramifications that require an understanding of the surrounding culture. A document trail may not exist, and the lawyer may need to talk to, or depose, several witnesses to get to the bottom of the facts.

2. There may be a person close to the CEO or owner of the company who has no official role, but is making the important decisions.

    This person may not be named in the company’s organizational chart or documents. The lawyer should find out if such a person exists and get to know her or him. Also, the lawyer should find out if such a person exists on the opposing side in order to determine whether to seek discovery from him or her.

3. Family is not just around the dinner table, but also in the boardroom.

    Decisions made informally can have profound influence on a case. The lawyer should not be afraid to reach out to and meet with the client’s family members who are involved in the business. It is not enough for the lawyer to have a relationship with only the client and the general counsel. In Latin America, children and other family members often work with and have important positions in the family business.

4. The lawyer should develop trust with the client outside of the office too.

    The lawyer should make sure to spend time with the client not only to find out about his business and the facts that led to litigation, but also to get to know him personally. Other cultures may see this as unnecessary. Consider, for example, dealing with a CEO in New York, for whom “time is money,” and who might wonder why a lawyer is talking to him about his daughter’s soccer match, or actually coming to it! With a Latin American client, that very act could be key to establishing a real relationship which brings the case to a successful conclusion. It is not uncommon for the lawyer to have dinner with the client and the client’s family. The key is having “confianza.” The word confianza doesn’t just mean confidence. It is a Latin American notion of trust and family.

Putting all this together takes the lawyer from mere translation to cultural understanding. That is why you need a lawyer who doesn’t just speak the language, but is also culturally competent.

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