Oh, Canada! I believe that our great nation is one celebrated for its racial, ethnic, cultural diversity in our people, industries, and way of life. In our increasingly multicultural society, it comes as no surprise that lawyer-client relationships are also as culturally diverse. With that in mind, I believe that a successful 21st century lawyer should be well-equipped for the realities of practice – and that is to be culturally competent when interacting with diverse clients, fellow practitioners, and other members of our legal profession from all walks of life.
* * *
Just what exactly is cultural competency?
Cultural competency has been defined as a “set of congruent behaviours, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency, or profession that enables that system, agency or profession to work effectively in cross-cultural situations”. Put simply, a culturally competent lawyer is not only aware of their clients’ cultural backgrounds, but goes beyond to recognize that cultural undertones may inform behaviours, motivations, and their relationship with the client. In doing so, a culturally competent lawyer can effectively assist with advocacy and communication across cultural experiences.
Why is there a need for culturally competent lawyers?
Cross-cultural clients often face challenges and barriers when dealing with legal issues that stem from their unique cultural experiences. This list is not exhaustive nor reflective of every interaction, but I believe that these are common issues that cross-cultural clients may face:
- Communication – The obvious is a language barrier between a lawyer and cross-cultural client. However, communication can include client’s body language, non-verbal cues, and mannerisms that may vary from culture to culture. When the lawyer is not cognizant of these cues, they are prone to missing important indicators of communication from the cultural client.
- Cultural values – Individuals of different ethno-racial groups may think, behave, and express themselves differently from other clients. Sometimes, these practices greatly contrast common practices of mainstream culture (i.e. eye contact in North American culture regarded as confidence vs. direct eye contact can be viewed as disrespect in East Asian cultures)
- Colour-blindness – Colour-blindness is a huge issue. Instead of working to recognize and accommodate cultural differences to provide appropriate legal services, colour-blindness ignores that there are even differences in the first place. This ideology disregards that clients of cultural groups foster diverse values, behaviours, and communication needs, all of which require special attention.
- Stereotypes – There is also a danger of negative stereotypes being projected onto cross-cultural clients. Lawyers have to be cognizant of these stereotypes, so that they do not become normalized, repeated practices against clients of a particular cultural group.
What are some ways to utilize cultural competency in practice?
I do not think becoming a culturally competent lawyer is particularly difficult. It definitely takes practice and requires adopting a set of lawyering skills tailored to this special niche of clients, but it is like learning any other skill.
Courts, legal aid clinics, and many law firms have already adopted translators, interpreters and other language aid tools for their cross-cultural clients, which is a great start. In order for lawyers to provide competent services to clients of other cultures, basic knowledge of their cultural practices or values should be given preliminary research much just like any other legal issue that would be given the same attention. Another helpful tip is to adopt an open, culturally appropriate attitude when interacting with cross-cultural clients. I think the biggest challenge for lawyers is to seeing past the dichotomy between the dominant Western culture and non-Western cultural practices. If lawyers stop trying to make sense of cultural practices using dominant Western ideals as a benchmark, I think we can foster an attitude that is open towards clients of other cultures, and can even spot similarities that were not as obvious before. Lastly, I believe that there should be more attention to cross-cultural education in law schools, or teaching cultural competency in law school clinics and continuing legal education. This change in education could help implement core skills in law students on how to interact with cross-cultural clients, before they enter the profession.
Lawyers are advocates for clients from all walks of life including clients of other cultures. So isn’t it time we recognized cultural competency as a necessary skill to being a successful lawyer in the 21st century?