The Changing Face of Legal Services Delivery: Cultural Competency in the Practice of Law
A monolingual Spanish-speaking single mother. A young professional who recently emigrated from India. A victim of domestic violence from the pro bono clinic. These are just a few clients that I have assisted in my practice over the last few months.
In an increasingly diverse society, cultural competency is becoming imperative to the practice of law. According to the National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC), cultural competence “embraces the principles of equal access and non-discriminatory practices in service delivery.”1 Cultural competency is achieved by identifying and understanding the needs and help-seeking behaviors of individuals. More importantly, the practice of cultural competency is driven in service delivery systems by client preferred choices, not by culturally blind or culturally free interventions (emphasis added).2 The legal industry is primarily a service-based industry, and the foundation of the practice of law is communication with clients. Understanding the needs of clients, and the cultural differences that may arise during communications with clients can make the delivery of legal services effective. With the American Bar Association’s mandate to improve access to lawyers and legal services for those of moderate incomes, cultural competency will continue to play an important role in the future of the legal profession, both for attorneys and for clients.
With these guiding principles in mind, below are some practices and policies that every lawyer can learn and implement in an effort to become culturally competent.
Learn What “Culture” Means
In order to be mindful of the cultural differences and similarities in clients, it is important to be mindful of the characteristics that can define different cultures. Culture is often described as the combination of a body of knowledge, a body of belief, and a body of behavior.3 Culture not only refers to the superficial features of a person, such as their appearance, but also refers to a person’s personal identity, language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions that are often specific to ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, or social groups.4
While appearances and linguistic differences are clear indicators for the need to be culturally competent, other characteristics such as personal identification can be difficult to ascertain. One example of this is simply the way that we refer to people. If a client introduces herself using a certain name or other specific way, keep that in mind. Be mindful of the way a client refers to himself or herself, and if you are unsure of how to refer to him or her, ask, do not assume!
Recently, in a seminar that I attended about providing legal counsel to homeless youth, one of the speakers mentioned that in her non-profit practice, they found that young homeless clients are more likely to feel comfortable if they are sitting closer to the exit than the attorney. Due to past experiences, she said, homeless youth are likely to distrust authority, and are less likely to have open conversations in uncomfortable environments — environments that are too ostentatious or too restrictive.
In learning what “culture” means, it is best to learn what it means in the context of the community that you serve.
Diversity is a catch-all word for the notable characteristics in a person. Diversity has many avatars, and learning how to convey information to diverse clients can be a career-defining action. A little bit of research and understanding can go a long way. Conveying information to clients so that it is easily understood is an invaluable skill, whether conveying to someone with limited English proficiency or literacy skills, an individual with disabilities, or someone who has never dealt with an attorney before.5
Similarly, valuing diversity within the legal profession is just as important. We can learn important lessons in cultural competency through each of our colleagues, whether they are disabled, ethnically diverse, or bring a different perspective to the table. Making the effort to attend events for diverse bar associations can be the first step in learning cultural competency in the legal profession. LGBT bar associations; ethnic bar associations, such as National Bar Association, Asian American Bar Associations; and religious bar associations, such as J. Reuben Clark Bar Association are some of many safe places to ask questions about certain diverse groups in order to increase cultural competency.
Build and Nurture Relationships
While speaking with colleagues about cultural competency recently, I found that one of my colleagues was in favor of learning about a client’s culture or values beforehand, and making it a topic of conversation in the first meeting to build a rapport. Another colleague, a female attorney, disagreed and said that she would proceed the same way with any client, and not make a client conscious of the differences in his or her background.
I believe the right answer is to set boundaries in conversation, along with a personable tone; and then assess each client’s reaction and comfort level before asking questions that could be perceived as personal, such as country of origin, family background, education, etc. In certain situations, such as discovery during litigation, questions about background may be inevitable. In other legal services, such as contract review or negotiations, the same questions can be irrelevant and intrusive. This can lead to distrust, especially in clients who come from backgrounds where law enforcement and legal counsel are traditionally more intimidating than helpful, whether in another country or a disadvantaged neighborhood.
Engaging and staying attuned to each client’s boundaries and comfort level can provide a solid foundation to build and nurture relationships based on trust and mutual respect.
The field of medicine encourages, and often requires, professional training in cultural competency prior to communicating with patients because such culturally-competent communications foster effective and honest relationships and trust. Legal service delivery, whether litigation or transactional, requires the same level of respect and competence in an increasingly diverse world.
Once we acknowledge the importance or cultural competency, and the fact that cultural competence is a developmental process that evolves over an extended period, we can begin to learn and improve the way that we interact with clients.6
1 National Centre of Cultural Competence, http://nccc.georgetown.edu/foundations/frameworks.html (last visited July 10, 2015).
3 National Institutes of Health, http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/culturalcompetency.htm (last visited July 10, 2015).
This article was published in the Summer-Fall 2015 issue of California Young Lawyers Association’s eNews and can be found here:
Myths Debunked: What a Millennial Learned About Legal Plans During the Application Process
by Aastha Madaan, New GLSA Member
When I decided in mid-2014 that I was going to start my own firm after less than three years of practice, I was scared and excited. I knew I had the skills and most importantly, I genuinely care about anyone that becomes my client. My biggest concern, of course, was actually getting clients.
I knew I wanted to help people and make legal services accessible and affordable. After all, I went to law school to make a difference! When I heard about legal plans, my first thought was, “why isn’t every attorney out there doing this and talking about it?” It was a simple concept, and one that is familiar to us because our entire health care and insurance system is based on medical providers providing affordable services via health insurance. It made sense that lawyers should do something similar to make legal services more affordable via legal plans and insurance.
As I started talking to more people about it, I started hearing discouraging rumors. Honestly, they made me a little afraid to apply and scared of rejection. When I recently started the application process, however, I gained some insights and realized that a lot of the skepticism surrounding the application process for legal plans simply is not true. I hope to share my experience in this three-part series and answer for other millennials the questions and concerns I had before I applied.
Myth # 1: The application process is complicated.
Truth: While the application process is not complicated, applicants have to fill out separate applications for each plan. Some applications are lengthy, and some are not. It really just depends. As long as you are prepared and have all the necessary information that each plan requires, the process should be quick. Each plan will ask for your malpractice coverage and Tax ID or EIN number. It also helps to have a fax number. Other basic information such as name, phone number, email address, state bar information is uniform across all the plans and you should have this on hand.
Tip: GLSA has a universal application. The good news is that you can fill out a single application and save yourself the time and hassle of filling each individual application, getting in touch with each plan, and sending your malpractice information separately to each plan. You can simply upload your paperwork on the GLSA website. Plans may follow-up and ask for individual information, but at least you will have saved the time to fill each individual application.
Myth # 2: Legal Plans do not accept young attorneys.
Truth: Yes, there are one or two legal plans that have a minimum requirement of about a decade of experience to even apply. However, there are plenty of legal plans that are excited to have young attorneys on board. Having more experience helps, but do not discount yourself if you are relatively new. Most providers will evaluate your application as a whole, including your bar associations, active relationships with experienced mentors, and even community involvement. It helps to be practical when choosing the practice areas you note in your application. For example, if you have never taken a case to trial, think twice before applying to represent clients in complex business litigation. Keep in mind, you can always add practice areas afterwards.
Tip: If you are concerned about your experience and how it may affect your application, call up the legal plans that you are concerned about. While applying, every single representative I talked to across the board for any legal plan provider was really nice and went out of their way to address my concerns. While some outright told me that I did not fit their criteria, others were willing to take additional information and evaluate my application anyway. No one discouraged me from applying, and I appreciated that. With GLSA’s universal application, applying for all legal plans is a no-brainer!
Myth # 3: Legal Plans are used only by executives and employees of large corporations!
Truth: Legal Plans span the entire range of the adult demographic! Some providers service only large employers, while some allow individuals and families to have membership at an affordable price. In fact, a lot of legal plans seek attorneys to advice small businesses. In doing research and speaking with representatives from different legal plans, I found that my vision for providing affordable, dedicated and efficient service to everyone across the board lined up perfectly with a lot of legal plans.
Tip: Ask the legal plan representatives to give you an idea of who their members are. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover that a lot of small businesses and non-profits provide legal plans, and you will play a part in helping people do good and living well!
These are just some of the myths and tips specifically geared towards younger attorneys. Stay tuned for the second part of this three-part series. Part II will cover setting up your legal plans and staying organized as a network attorney.
Original Article Published in GLSA’s January/February 2015 NewsBreifs on January 28, 2015 . Available at: http://glsa.memberclicks.net/january-february-2015?servId=5099