Lawyers & Multilingualism

In November, the William A. Wise Law Library asked our law students "If you could learn any language instantly, what language would you learn?"  (I got the answers going by writing Kannada, a language from Southern India - and was surpised that someone +1'd me.)  Our law students responded with languages ranging from Old Norse to Blackfoot to Estonian to Hebrew to Simlish - and plenty more.  With our students' interest in languages, the Wise Law Library thought it would be interesting to discuss the usefulness (and potential pitfalls) of being an attorney who knows a second language.


The benefits of multilingualism

In 2013, American University Washington College of Law Professor Jayed M. Rathod noted the increasing value of multilingualism for U.S. attorneys in his research about the benefits of multilingualism for lawyers.  He writes that multilingual lawyers have a "distinct advantage that allows [them] to bridge communicative divides, work more efficiently, and pursue a broader range of professional opportunities" (865).  But beyond the functional advantages of multilingualism, lawyers with skills in multiple languages see increased cognitive benefits, increased analytical and creative thinking, and the potential for improved client relations.

Other researchers back up Rathod's idea that multilingual lawyers have the potential for better relations with their clients. Research from Roger Williams University examines how a bilingual attorney may be better than an attorney-plus-translator combination, with a focus on Spanish-English bilingual attorneys. For example, translators might be provided free-of-cost at the court-level but not at the interview, and so a client may be unable or unwilling to pay for both a translator and an attorney (a double-cost that would not be incurred if their attorney was bilingual). Confidentiality laws bind bilingual lawyers, but not translators.


At home and abroad

Multilingualism can help lawyers in an increasingly multi-national legal space.

The U.K. edition of the Guardian published an article about the usefulness of bilingualism for lawyers in an increasingly globalized world, quoting Dr Martina Künnecke, lecturer in comparative public law and EU law at the University of Hull: “Students need a global mindset, and language skills are a part of that. It’s absolutely crucial considering the competition in the jobs market today.”  This article is older (pre-Brexit), and geared towards U.K. residents but it highlights the importance of knowing a second - or even third! - language for attorneys interested in international law (like working with the EU).

Even attorneys whose focus is still domestic, but centered on business and corporate law will find that familiarity with other languages might be helpful.  The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) found that corporate legal departments were particularly interested in hiring attorneys who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and/or Japanese.  The MCCA notes that often the multilingual lawyer doesn't just come with language skills but also crucial cultural skills that are useful in navigating transnational legal matters.


A potential pitfall

Though the above research shows the positives of a bilingual lawyer - in lieu of a translator - other research finds that an attorney serving as counsel and interpreter puts undue strain on the counsel that wouldn't be placed on a monolingual attorney, potentially causing the attorney to provide less-effective representation.  Instead, this paper argues that bilingual counsel should strongly advocate for interpreters for their clients and the "right to an interpreter" legislation or case law.


Could law schools help their students become bilingual lawyers?

Rathod (above) and others note that most U.S. law schools (and most U.S. educational institutions in general) do not emphasize non-English language acquisition due to English's predominance in the legal and business spheres.  Though there are curricular offerings exposing U.S. law students to second-languages, these offerings are "marginal" at best and still rather Euro-centric (with a heavy focus on Spanish and sometimes French).  While the benefits of increased cultural sensitivity and understanding, cognitive abilities and reasoning, understanding of American culture, and possibility for client dignity, it might prove to be difficult to have an even moderately bilingual law program.  Enough students and instructors would need to be interested, and there would need to be appropriate curricular materials (and there are very scant few) (Reimann).


I am bilingual / have a high level of proficiency in a second language, how should I prepare to use that language as a lawyer?

Take classes like "Business French" or "Business Mandarin," even if you are bilingual or have a high level of proficiency, to make sure that you know common business terms.

Read materials in your second language in the area you're interested in working in regularly, to keep your language skills sharp - and to get familiar with the common words and phrases used in your line of work.

If you're interested in finding law and law-related resources in a non-English language (to practice), contact a law librarian to help you get started.