by ursavoice

Spanish for Lawyers: A Core Course

Lauren Davis
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

Dean Ortiz began the first class discussion in Spanish for Lawyers by asking, “¿Por qué estás aquí?”(Why are you here?) A few bilingual students responded as native speakers. Another student, who studied in Spain, had a distinctly different accent from the rest of us and used the Vd. and vosotros verb forms, which are unique to Spain. Other students struggled for a few moments and then expressed themselves with competence and clarity.

The ultimate goal of the course is to learn enough legal and practical Spanish to effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking clients. Taught by Victoria Ortiz, the former Dean of Students and Director of Admissions, this course is challenging, practical, and fun. Since we go to a law school located in a region with a large percentage of Spanish speakers and live in a country with a growing population of Spanish speakers, knowledge of Spanish is a necessary tool of the legal trade. For example, during pro bono projects last year, most of us encountered situations in which knowledge of Spanish was essential. Legal concepts are difficult to communicate to native English speakers, let alone to people without a mastery of English. As future attorneys, the onus rightly belongs on us to facilitate communication with our clients.

As the Hispanic population grows across the country, resistance to this shift in demographic is evidenced in the impatience and intolerance many people express toward seemingly insurmountable language barriers. This animus toward language barriers often seems to be a proxy for racism. Growing up in Texas, I often heard people say things such as, “Those people don’t never learn no English when they git here” or “Why them Spanish people gotta keep speakin’ Messican?” (I wish I were exaggerating about both the form and substance of these questions.) I struggled to refrain from pointing out that their English did not seem much better than that of the “Spanish” people to whom they referred.

The ignorance of some of my “fellow” Texans is unfortunately manifested in higher echelons of society. It just takes on a slightly different form. Some of my college classmates and former co-workers would ask insensitive questions: “Why do so many blacks and Hispanics have trouble succeeding even after getting so many hand-outs?” or “I understand learning a new language is difficult, but you would think they would learn to speak English after living here for years.” (I wish I were exaggerating about the substance of these questions as well.) Also, a surprising number of people everywhere seem unduly inconvenienced by the “Press one for English, and para español, oprima numero dos” option at the beginning of many business calls. Again, this impatience and intolerance has troubling implications.

However, progress is on the horizon. Over 25% of the 2Ls have enrolled in Spanish for Lawyers this semester. The fact that over a quarter of the inaugural class knows enough Spanish to take a course taught entirely in that language is extremely encouraging. The content of the course and the level of student engagement further the collective goal of being the law school of the 21st century. I hope this exciting trend continues as our school grows and as our country changes.