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Translating Legalese Into Your Client’s Language

I’ve been in Mexico City for the past few weeks. The picture is me after nearly killing myself climbing the Pyramid of the Sun.

I don’t speak Spanish. In fact, I struggle with English.

I rarely bumped into anyone speaking English while I was in Mexico. It was challenging.

Just for the record, I can ask ¿Donde esta el banyo? which means “Where is the bathroom?” That question became increasingly important as I ate more and more street food and washed it down with tap water.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Thankfully, I spent most of my time with my wife and our operations manager, both of whom speak enough Spanish to function.

We spent a great deal of time interacting with Spanish speakers in a variety of settings. We talked with dozens of waiters, store clerks, hotel personnel, museum guides, and a range of people on the street. It felt like I was observing constant conversation between others. Rarely did I have much of an idea of what was happening.

During these long periods of being clueless, I started thinking about our clients and the conversations they observe between us.

They watch us talking to one another (attorney to attorney), talking to judges, and interacting with experts. Generally, they are clueless as to what we’re saying. Well, they’re not entirely clueless because we’re all speaking English, but, by and large, they miss much of the point of many of our conversations.

In fact, they might be better off if we didn’t speak in English to one another. Unfortunately, they often take certain phrases and pieces of conversation and assign meaning (much of which is off the mark), which is sometimes detrimental to their emotional well-being. They hear something, assume certain meaning, and then get upset. This is why many attorneys prefer to have conversations outside of our clients’ presence.

Avoiding Language That Could Fry Bacon

I found myself getting anxious when the Spanish conversations between my wife and/or our operations guy and others went on for a while and I knew they involved something about me. The conversations usually related to my food, and I got especially agitated if I felt like I was headed toward getting something I didn’t really want. Suddenly, I’d find myself injecting myself in the conversation in English, trying to be sure I got the right thing. Sound like any of your clients?

The formula for increasing my agitation came to down to this:

Conversation about me + long period without translation = upset me.

They can talk all day about something other than me and I don’t get upset. They can talk for a short period about me and translate and I don’t get upset. It’s only when they talk about me for a long time and don’t translate that I get really rattled and then react.

Speak Their Language

Like me, our clients need translation—and they need it fast. They need to know, nearly in real time, what’s happening and what it means if you expect them to remain calm.

As a practical matter, that may mean having someone with you to translate in certain situations. I’ve always preferred to have an extra attorney or a paralegal with me in court to explain what’s happening as it happens. I’m usually busy doing the lawyer thing.

I stand up and say “objection.” The paralegal translates. The judge responds “sustained,” and the paralegal translates. You get the idea. The result? Client who is in the loop and not upset.

Obviously, you can’t bring a translator to every event. However, you can anticipate the particularly stressful situations and be sure you’ve talked it through with your clients in advance. You can let your clients determine the helpfulness of having someone there to translate so they can evaluate the efficacy of the expense.

You can also be keenly aware of your clients’ response to “legal mumbo-jumbo” conversations taking place in their presence. When you perceive your clients heading for the red zone, you can take a break, do some translating, and then resume the conversation.

The last thing you need during an important negotiation is to have your client yelling ¿Donde esta el banyo? Have your translation plan in place before the conversation, and you’ll never have to worry.

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Lee Rosen

Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With four offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rosen served as the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate for more than a decade and received the ABA James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He served as Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary.