Kelley Uustal Trial Attorney
May 6, 2020

Serving Culturally Diverse Clients

Karina Rodrigues, Attorney, Kelley | Uustal

Clients come to us often for help with the worst thing that ever happened to them. Each person, let alone each culture, deals with tragedy differently. As such, attracting, understanding and retaining clients, especially those from diverse backgrounds, takes a conscious effort.

Cross cultural conflict may occur the moment a client arrives. In some cultures, for instance, it is common for clients to bring their whole family or children to appointments, arrive late and withhold or not volunteer necessary information. While these may require workarounds, it is crucial to maintain a welcoming environment and be ready to address such contingencies. Building a relationship is key to conducting business in some cultures, and the first meeting is an excellent opportunity for that. 

Further, legal work is highly dependent on understanding what happened. The challenge is that story telling can be difficult for clients, especially those with limited English proficiency. Additionally, communication styles can vary greatly. In some cultures, people tend to speak in absolutes, prefer direct communication, and get straight to the point. In other cultures, however, that behavior may appear rude, and people speak vaguely, prefer indirect communication, and often digress or go off topic. 

When dealing with clients with limited English proficiency, there are several things that can be done to improve communication. For example, listening patiently, allowing for pauses, not speaking over clients or trying to finish clients’ sentences can mean all the difference. One should speak in simple terms, in a structured way and without digressions and not give too much information at once.

Recognizing body language is also important. Asian clients may smile when they are uncomfortable or do not understand[], and Hispanic clients may quietly continue to nod when something is confusing []. Blank stares or tense bodies are other giveaways of lack of understanding. Gauging the level of language is also helpful so that one adjusts speed and vocabulary. An accent or lack of fluency should never be equated with lack of intelligence. Getting over cultural differences can be challenging and exhausting. However, successfully building a relationship with diverse clients is extremely rewarding. Not only does it allow lawyers to better represent clients, but it also builds a connection that lasts a lifetime.

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