“Cultural competence” is a saying we hear a lot these days. It refers to the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that lead to appropriate and effective communication with people of other cultures.
Attorneys, who are in the client services business, often encounter clients and potential clients who don’t look or act like them. While it can be more comfortable to take on clients who share a similar background, attorneys who overlook diverse and often underrepresented groups are missing a significant untapped market.
“These [potential clients] aren’t getting called back [by many attorneys],” said Iffy Ibekwe, an Austin, Texas-based attorney who presented on serving new clients by increasing cultural competency at the 2022 ABA Techshow. And minority attorneys can’t be the only lawyers serving minority clients, she said.
The demographics of the U.S. are changing rapidly. The overall racial and ethnic diversity of the country has increased significantly since 2010, according to analyses from the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the legal profession isn’t keeping pace.
According to the ABA, in 2021, just 4.7% of lawyers were Black, while 13.4% of the U.S. population was Black. Likewise, 4.8% of all lawyers were Hispanic, despite Hispanic people making up 18.5% of the U.S. population, and 2.5% of all lawyers were Asian, although the U.S. population was 5.9% Asian.
Combine this data with consistent research that shows that up to 80% of the civil legal needs of individuals are not being met, and there is a blueprint for culturally competent attorneys to build a highly successful practice.
How would you react?
Consider this: If a potential client is looking for a lawyer in your area of practice and finds your website, will they feel, based on what they see and read, that you will provide them with the same level of respect and follow-up you may offer your majority clients?
How about if you meet them in person and they don’t make eye contact or avoid shaking your hand (when we were still shaking hands)? Would you view these behaviors as a sign of weakness, insecurity, or even disrespect? Or would you stop and consider the potential cultural significance of their actions.
For example, while Western cultures typically view eye contact as a form of confidence, some Eastern cultures see it as a sign of disrespect. And observant Muslims and Orthodox Jews refrain from shaking the hand of the opposite gender.
When cultures collide, it’s important to stop and think if the way you’re interpreting a situation is the only way it can be interpreted, said Nkoyo-Ene Effiong, the Director of Law Practice Management Program for the State Bar of Georgia, who presented with Ibekwe at ABA Techshow.
Increase your cultural competence
Ibekwe and Effiong shared five ways attorneys can increase their cultural competence and connect with new communities.
1. Be curious and candid.
Get clear on the types of services you can provide then ask yourself who else in your community has these needs. Are there groups with limited access to legal services who are getting left behind?
How are you marketing your services to these groups? Does your marketing reflect the communities you’re hoping to serve? For example, people are more likely to seek services if they see their stories mirrored in the promotional photos and other materials.
Work on your soft skills. Ask questions and be comfortable saying “I don’t know yet” when you can’t answer a request. It’s okay to invite a client to share their lens, or perspective, so you can get a better idea of where they’re coming from.
2. Build community.
Seek out relationships with other lawyers, legal and business professionals, and members of the communities you aim to serve.
Volunteer or join a local civic organization, become active on community Facebook groups, and learn from those willing to share their culture and traditions.
3. Broaden your language.
Leave the lawyer-speak in the office and simplify your language. If there is an easier way to say something, do it.
Transcribe documents in a language that your client can read and understand, offer chatbots in multiple languages, and use easy-to-follow visuals and infographics.
4. Bring in translators and translator services.
When communicating with people who don’t use English as their first language, we often revert to speaking slower or louder, which can be disrespectful. Instead, hire a translator for your clients, translate important documents, and research translation management software.
Consider the accessibility of your services for people who are visually and hearing impaired. Would a person who is visually impaired be able to access your website? Can you leverage an ASL interpreter for a client who is hearing impaired?
5. Build diverse and inclusive teams.
Diverse teams are 70% more likely to capture new markets, according to Effiong and Ibekwe, so hire intentionally and cultivate inclusive workplaces. Research shows that workplaces with highly inclusive cultures are more innovative and have 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, Effiong and Ibekwe said.
Inclusivity means providing equal access to opportunities and resources for all people, no matter their race, culture, gender, sex, sexuality, ability, class, or other characteristics. But inclusivity also includes things like family, work, and caregiver responsibilities.
For example, it can be hard for people with full-time jobs to attend meetings during regular business hours. How can you be more inclusive and work around their schedules?
Most importantly, be patient with yourself, Effiong and Ibekwe said. Learn from your mistakes and be prepared to build your cultural competence gradually.
“We want to make sure people can see themselves in the law,” Effiong said. “And if you can make this happen, there is so much more opportunity in the market you serve.”
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