Bilingual Attorneys: An Essential Conduit Between Culture and Justice 

Hello in different languages word cloud on blackboardShouldn’t all residents in the state of Illinois, regardless of the language they speak, have access to quality legal services?

I recently came across this startling statistic: According to the U.S. Census, more than 23 percent of households in Illinois spoke a language other than English at home between 2017 and 2021. That equates to roughly 1.123 million Illinois households, according to Acutrans, a translation and interpretation service.

This diversity of language means a significant number of legal clients in Illinois may have Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Nevertheless, they deserve legal and justice systems that are accessible to them.

Language is at the crux of culture, family origin, and dignity for many people. It is the way most of us interact with the legal system. The language lawyers use to communicate with clients and potential clients can build trust and confidence in the legal process, or sow skepticism and disengagement.

Bilingual attorneys play a critical role in our legal system, serving as a conduit between a client’s culture and the American legal process. However, their talents and skills may also lead to increased workplace demands and feelings of obligation, which often go unnoticed.

Attorneys as cultural ambassadors

The role bilingual attorneys play in client cases is multi-faceted. Attorneys are both “a representative of clients” and “an officer of the legal system,” as the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct states, but they are also cultural interpreters and ambassadors who offer reassurance and familiarity in helping clients navigate the legal system.

Many bilingual attorneys are first-generation U.S. citizens who grew up navigating their native language and English in their own lives and for their families.

“I felt pressure and pride to find work that would give back to the community that I came from,” said Alice Setrini, a Clinical Teaching Fellow at Loyola University Chicago School of Law who, as a first-generation Latinx American, chose to join the law to give back to her community and live up to the sacrifices that were made on her behalf. “You grow up seeing this enormous unmet need for legal support and communication for immigrant communities. You see instances of people being taken advantage of due to this language barrier, and you want to step in and prevent that from happening.”

Bilingual attorneys like Setrini are often called upon by their law firms, other attorneys, and the courts to take cases for LEP clients, or to help support cases where a bilingual attorney is needed, through conversations with clients, translation and interpretation services, cultural competency advice, and more.

The business case for culturally competent attorneys

Being bilingual may not only be a boon for attorneys and their clients but it can also be good for business.

Maliha Siddiqui, Principal Attorney at Siddiqui Family Law, LLC in Chicago who speaks Urdu and Spanish, said that bilingual attorneys possess skills that appeal to this wider audience, allowing for expanded opportunities to deliver justice.

“Small firms greatly benefit from language skills and the cultural competence that comes with it,” she said. “It’s easier to build a niche and get business.”

In her family law practice, Siddiqui is often called upon to educate judges and other attorneys on culturally competent divorce practices through the spheres of religion, cultural norms, and the law, knowing that family law often entails highly charged issues.

This cultural competence – which is described as the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that lead to appropriate and effective communication with people of other cultures – is necessary to provide a holistic client experience grounded in dignity and respect.

Moreover, when speaking to a client in their native language and a culturally relevant context, attorneys can better trust that their clients understand the information they’re providing. This helps to limit miscommunication and the misinterpretation of important legal information.

Janice Dantes, the Owner and Managing Partner of PinayLaw in Chicago who speaks Filipino and English, has seen this ability to facilitate trust happen first-hand in her practice.

Dantes has a strong understanding of both American law and Filipino family values. She aims to serve clients with “strength in advocacy and warmth in approach” all while exhibiting a “soul of Filipino spirit,” according to her website, which includes imagery that speaks to this population.

“In one of my family law cases, we argued that a child’s grandparents in the Philippines are unable to visit their grandchild in the United States due to visa restrictions and the length of the journey,” Dantes said. “The GAL [guardian ad litem] asked, ‘Well, can’t they meet in Hawaii?’ Americans take for granted how easily they can travel the world because we can just buy a ticket, whereas many third-world countries have so many restrictions on travel.”

How being bilingual impacts attorney workload

While reducing language barriers and providing equal access to justice for all should be a priority in the legal profession, the demand for bilingual attorneys can also lead to increased workplace demands that aren’t always acknowledged.

Many bilingual attorneys are expected to manage their caseloads while providing interpretation and translation support for other attorneys in their firm. And often other attorneys do not realize just how time-consuming these language tasks can be.

“[Bilingual] attorneys are often taken away from their casework to serve as interpreters for others,” Setrini said. “Even a quick call or taking a message can be disruptive to their workflow, which can have an impact over time.”

Setrini noted that working with a lawyer’s own LEP clients can demand more time than other cases too.

“You have to translate documents and your communications,” she said. “Most attorneys are not trained in law in a second language, so concepts and legal language just take more time to explain in a language that you were not trained in.”

Setrini said that for the most part, even attorneys who are native Spanish speakers went to school in the U.S., “where we didn’t have a legal Spanish.”

“This can be challenging,” she said. “[It] takes more time than if you were practicing in English.”

While bilingual attorneys are often asked to take on these roles, they may not be offered commensurate compensation and their language access efforts may not be seen as the real legal work, Setrini says.

“[An attorney serving as an interpreter] is not seen as actual work, often not compensated in any way, or taken into consideration when looking at overall workloads,” she said.

How Illinois is prioritizing language access


Photo of three professional women posing at an event
Justice Mary K. Rochford (center) promulgated the Illinois Supreme Court Language Access Policy. Pictured here with Justice Margaret Mullen (left) and Erika Harold (right).

The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) has prioritized ensuring that LEP court users receive equal access to the state’s justice system. This includes supporting attorneys, judges, and court personnel in creating a user-friendly court process.

The AOIC’s Access to Justice Division (formerly the Civil Justice Division) is overseeing the creation and implementation of Language Access Plans (LAPs) in the state’s 24 judicial circuits, which provide a framework for making meaningful language access available to LEP people in the circuit.

The LAPs include things like the circuit’s most frequently requested languages, multilingual notices in the courts, language identification devices used, and trainings for court staff on language access and interpreters.

Currently, many state courts already have resources in place. Examples are a Court Interpreter Registry with vetted interpreters in more than 60 languages; translated forms, resources, and signage; instructions for court personnel on appointing an interpreter; bench cards for attorneys and judges; and I-speak cards that help court personnel determine what language a person speaks.

Moreover, some courts – like in Jackson, McClean, Jo Daviess, and Cook Counties – have “Language Days” devoted to cases that require interpreters.

Supporting bilingual court personnel

Noor Alawawda, Senior Program Manager for the AOIC’s Language Access Program, said that its Language Access Committee has surveyed court staff, judges, and interpreters to better understand language access resources and needs, and will hold town hall sessions to help address these needs.

In addition, Alawawda said the Language Access Committee is working on best practices for judges who are bilingual and outlining the roles they should and should not play when working with LEP individuals.

“As we are seeing more judges, court staff, and attorneys who are bilingual, it’s clear that more guidance is needed,” she said. “It’s also important to note that language skills should be tested for those who are bilingual and that being bilingual is not enough to be providing interpreting services to LEP individuals.”

The crux of language and law

For attorneys and clients, the use of language that can be clearly understood by all parties is critical for effective advocacy.

When choosing an attorney, many clients may prioritize language over other qualifications on a resume or a website, according to Illinois attorney Steve Rakowski, who wrote a blog post on language in family law for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. And certainly, with the growing number of non-English speaking households in Illinois, we are bound to see the value of attorneys who speak multiple languages rise.

Bilingual attorneys play and will continue to play a critical role in leading the legal profession through the changes in our culture and communities, ensuring justice is accessible to Americans no matter their background or native language.

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