As of late, news outlets have been buzzing about the most recent waves of immigrants arriving from Latin America.
Regardless of one’s political position on the issue of immigration, it is undeniable that America is a dynamic, multicultural, and multilingual country, with quickly growing populations of predominantly Spanish-speaking individuals. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Spanish is, by a significant margin, the second most spoken language in the United States and, in fact, the U.S. is the country with the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world. Pew Research Center reports that Colorado has the eighth largest Latino population, with 53% of these individuals speaking Spanish in the home. These Spanish-speakers are successful entrepreneurs and business owners, employees, parents, spouses, and, just like all other Americans, sometimes in need of legal services.
As attorneys, it is easy to take for granted the complicated procedures and legal jargon that fill our everyday professional lives. However, for litigants involved in employment, personal injury, divorce, and other disputes, our legal system is often an unknown and frightening place.
Even for those who speak English as a first language, litigation and transactional processes are foreign territory.
The anxiety and fear of the unknown is substantially compounded by a lack of complete English fluency and familiarity with American institutional systems. Compassionate legal guides are required to translate our legal “language” for all clients, but particularly for those who speak Spanish as a first language.
The current social profile of Colorado suggests that all law firms would greatly benefit from hiring Spanish-speaking attorneys and staff. Bilingual employees expose the firm to significant populations of clientele looking for attorneys who offer not only high-quality legal services, but a linguistic and culturally sensitive approach, as well. Even for those Spanish-speakers with some English language proficiency, having a bilingual attorney allows them to more fully and eloquently express their needs and opinions, and establishes a greater sense of trust, mutual understanding, and respect. The bilingual attorney also develops deeper insight into the case itself, as she has instantaneous linguistic access to Spanish-language documents, emails, recordings and witnesses. This access streamlines the case timetable and economizes the client’s financial resources.
For the Spanish-speaking attorney, there are some important considerations. First, just as attorneys learn the “language” of the law in law school, one must become familiar with appropriate legal and financial terms in Spanish. This may be accomplished by studying a Spanish/English legal dictionary (offered by a number of publishers), or by attending a “Spanish for Lawyers” type of course to brush up on important terms. These classes are offered online or as brick-and-mortar courses by various educational institutions, may be purchased on computer and audio discs, and are even available through the American Bar Association. The Colorado Bar Association has its own Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee, which works to provide various resources to attorneys and the community.
Second, the Spanish-speaking lawyer must remember that, although his or her translation skills are beneficial in client interactions, document review, and witness interviews, they cannot be relied upon in court. A certified interpreter is always required to interpret during legal proceedings and to certify translations of items to be admitted into evidence. The Spanish-speaking attorney may also wish to use a certified interpreter to assist the client when signing a binding contract to establish a record that the client fully understands the terms and obligations.
Third, the Spanish-speaking attorney should take care to ensure that the client understands the legal system at hand. While procedure must also be carefully explained to English-speaking clients, most native English-speakers come in with a general understanding of the American legal system. For those who studied civics in other countries, it is important that the fundamentals of the American system and expectations are understood prior to explaining the specifics. This ensures that the process is entirely demystified and manageable to the Spanish-speaking client.
With these important considerations in mind, the Spanish-speaking attorney will be successful in opening his or her business to additional clientele, and most importantly, the attorney will be actively promoting access to justice in the community.
For many, the legal system is simply not navigable. A Spanish-speaking attorney can be the guide for those lost in the linguistic shuffle. Certainly, this is a goal that we can all support.