How Can Lawyers Support Clients Who Are Not English-Proficient?

Christian Ray Pilares | November 2, 2021

As of 2016, 15% of the American adult population do not speak English at home. In the years that have passed, that number has grown. That is in line with the fact that the United States will be a white minority country by the year 2045. There are more Americans now with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

As a lawyer, you need to think about the possibility that you will be dealing with non-English-speaking clients. How can you serve them better? How can you help them with their legal problems?

Communicating With Non-English Speaking Clients

Working with non-English speaking clients or those to whom English is a second language can be challenging but you have to do it. As a lawyer, you are bound to assist them. Here are some tips when it comes to dealing with clients who don’t use English as a primary language or even those who do not speak English at all.

Get to Know Your Client

Never assume anything about your clients especially if it’s because of their access or how they look. Also, never assume their capability of reading, writing, and speaking a language. 

The first time that you meet with your client, try to assess their language skills. It is okay to ask questions about their language skills. You will need to know the answer to those questions so you can provide them with the best service that you can deliver.

As you're getting to know your client, you can gain valuable information by observing their body language. Their posture can tell you whether they are relaxed, disinterested, nervous, or defensive. Analyzing their body language will help you work with them more effectively, as you will see if they understand what you're telling them. Assessing their actions and expressions will enable you to recognize their needs, as well, even if they struggle with speaking English.

Use Simple Language

Understanding legal terminology can be difficult for any layperson, regardless of language proficiency. If you are attempting to explain a legal concept or anything else related to the case to someone with limited English skills, it's important to avoid complex or technical jargon. Keep the explanations brief and use common words that the client is more likely to understand.

Make Adjustments

As you spend more time with your client and you get to know them, you can make adjustments with how you communicate with your clients. Here are some things that you can do to adjust your communication:

  • Speak more slowly and try to be more clear
  • Paraphrase certain points of what you are trying to say
  • For the most important aspects of what you are trying to say, it is okay to repeat yourself

Before you use any of these steps, make sure that you have assessed their communication skill. As you can see, your client might be offended if you use these steps with them when they can clearly understand you.

How Can Lawyers Support Clients Who Are Not English-Proficient?

Work With a Translation Service

You will be dealing with a lot of documents. To make the English documents accessible to your clients and to make their non-English documents understandable to you, it’s highly recommended that you get help from a translation services provider. 

Not all translation services providers can handle translations of documents needed for court proceedings. We’ve talked to a few law firms and they’ve recommended a few that they work with frequently. 

Many of them liked the system that Tomedes had set up through their webpage. Tomedes is a translation company that has a lot of experience in handling documents used in court proceedings. Those in need of translation services for documents can upload their document on the website and get a free quote. Other law firms prefer working with Lionbridge which has built a reputation within the industry.

Get Interpreters

There might be cases when your client is really unable to speak or understand English. For those cases, you must rely on the expertise of interpreters. Getting a relative of your client to interpret might be tempting to cut costs but it is always better to get the services of a professional, just like when getting help from a translation services provider.

When working with an interpreter, it's important to remain engaged with them as well as your client. This person plays the crucial role of explaining what you're attempting to convey, so you need to be on the same page. Encourage the interpreter to stop you and ask questions or receive clarification if they're unsure of what you're saying. A competent interpreter will also earn the client's trust, which makes your job easier. 

Exercise Empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize how others would feel and see a situation from their perspective. Exercising empathy will allow you break down language barriers. Your clients will notice and appreciate right away your empathy.

When you are working with clients who are not so proficient with English, you have to let them take their time. They might have a hard time formulating the answer to your question in English. The accuracy of their answer is very important because you are dealing with legal matters.

You can display empathy in several ways:

  • Focus on your similarities. Instead of focusing on the differences between you and your client or leaning on cultural stereotypes, attempt to find common ground that can break down communication barriers. 
  • Reveal your humanity. Share something about yourself that shows you're human and not an untrustworthy authority figure. 
  • Show interest in their life. Ask questions that indicate you're interested in them as a person as well as your client.

Should You Study Their Language?

Perhaps the best way to help your non-English speaking clients is for you to learn their language. That way, there will be no need for an interpreter and you can communicate more freely. But there are a lot of considerations before you start studying a new language.

The most important thing to think about is the time. Do you think you can spare the time to learn a new language? As a lawyer, you’re very busy. According to the Foreign Service Institute, one can become fluent in a language that has been classified as easy within 48 days. Provided that you study for 10 hours each day. If you do have that time, then it’s going to be worth it.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of things that you can do to help your clients who are not fluent in English. The mere fact that you are making an effort to communicate with them can sometimes mean a lot already. But also, more effective communications mean you can do more for them.

Lawline Can Help You Work With Non-English-Speaking Clients

At Lawline, we empower the legal profession's pursuit of justice by offering high-quality continuing legal education (CLE) programs that enable attorneys to take charge of their professional growth. Our courses cover information that lawyers need to know when fostering trusting, productive relationships with their non-English-speaking clients. These programs are available on demand, enabling you to fit learning and development into your busy schedule. 

Contact us to learn more about our CLE courses and how they can aid your legal practice today. You can also request a free trial for any of our programs.

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About the Author

Written by Christian Ray Pilares

Christian Ray Pilares is a professional writer who has been writing about legal, financial, and language-related topics for years now. He has published numerous articles about legal concerns.


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