Language Barriers in the Legal Profession

by ursavoice

Joni Carrasco
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

Recognizing the importance of interpreters for clients with limited English proficiency is not a radical notion—it is common sense. Many of us would be appalled to learn of a non-English speaking client who was forced to undergo criminal proceedings in the U.S. without an interpreter in the courtroom. We are equally troubled when we learn of asylum applicants having to provide their own interpreters during official interviews with immigration authorities. With regard to services outside of the legal setting, public interest attorneys have been at the forefront of battles to ensure that limited English proficient persons receive adequate health services in their primary language.

But what happens when we hold up a mirror to ourselves—those of us entering the legal profession—when examining the ways in which legal services are provided to clients who have a limited ability to communicate in English? We should be writhing in our seats.

Presumably, people in the legal profession should have some basic understanding of just how important the communication is between a client and her lawyer. And similarly, it would seem just as basic to understand that the quality of the communication affects the quality of representation, and the quality of the representation can undoubtedly affect the outcome of a matter. So, it astounds me when I am confronted with instances within the legal profession that clearly seem to reduce the importance of the communication with a non-English speaking client to questions of convenience and cost.

For example, since I have started law school, I have received several requests—most from complete strangers—about my availability to interpret for a client as a student volunteer. While I recognize the importance of such opportunities for gaining experience in client interviewing, I cannot help but be worried that I am asked by attorneys who have never met me and have absolutely no way of knowing whether I am proficient enough in the language, or equally importantly, whether I have any formal training as an interpreter. The only requirement seems to hinge on the word “volunteer.”

I recognize that the bottom line will often be a looming factor with regard to any representation, and the money argument is maybe somewhat compelling in legal services and other public interest settings. But it is incredibly troubling when such a request comes from an attorney at a large firm—typically when handling a pro bono case—where resources for such expenses as a qualified, certified interpreter are not as scarce. After all, is not the purpose of taking on pro bono work more than just providing a warm body, but rather a pledge to provide resources to handle the case competently?

Thus, the same type of behavior toward limited English proficient persons that might anger us in other contexts should anger us just as much with regard to how we serve our clients. A system of volunteers, who may or may not be qualified to communicate with the client adequately, and with no screening process to determine this, is not sufficient. More should be invested in training attorneys who speak other languages (while being careful not to pigeonhole an attorney into becoming the office interpreter). Classes, like Spanish for Lawyers, should be available in a number of languages for students who wish to improve their client communication skills. Attorneys should learn where and how to find qualified interpreters, and build an in-house file on those who are the most (and least) reliable.

Essentially, we in the legal profession have to recognize that the ability to communicate with clients in the language they are most comfortable, and at a level of quality that we would have with English speaking clients, is as important as the duty to consult with the client at all.