Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering - Introduction

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Author: Sue Bryant & Jean Koh Peters
Last updated: October 2007

Practicing law is often a cross-cultural experience. The law, as well as the legal system within which it operates, is a culture with strong professional norms that give meaning to and reinforce behaviors. Many of you may recall your first year of law school as “culture shock” [1]. Like travelers to a foreign country, you were aware of differences between your own culture and the legal culture. You were learning a new language and learning to make explicit the cultural values implicit in the law; the communication style of argument predominated and competition was highly valued. For some of us, the law and its practice reflect many of our own cultural values and meanings. For others of us, the legal culture is more foreign. All of us have been acculturated as lawyers, as such, even when a lawyer and a non-law trained client share a common culture, the client and the lawyer will likely experience the lawyer-client interaction as a cross-cultural experience because of the cultural differences that arise from the legal culture.

In addition to these cultural differences, we know that the global movement of people, as well as the multicultural nature of the United States, create many situations where lawyers and clients will work in cross-cultural situations. To meet the challenges of cross-cultural representation, lawyers need to develop awareness, knowledge and skills that enhance the lawyers’ and clients’ capacities [2] to form meaningful relationships and to communicate accurately.

These materials, and the Habits they introduce, prepare lawyers to engage in effective, accurate cross-cultural communication and to build trust and understanding between lawyers and clients. A cross-cultural training theorist has identified the primary goal of effective cross-cultural interaction as developing the capacity to make “isomorphic attributions,” to attribute the same meaning to behavior and words that the person intended to convey [3].

 A cross-cultural anthropologist has referred to this as the capacity to enter the cultural imagination of another, as “perceiving as normal things that at first seem bizarre or strange.” [4]

The materials [5] are designed to allow the lawyer in a cross-cultural relationship to engage in the following three-step process:

1. A lawyer should be able to identify his assumptions.
2. A lawyer should challenge those assumptions with fact.
3. A lawyer should practice law/lawyering based on fact.

In truth, this three-step process is not only good cross-cultural lawyering, but also good lawyering in general. [6] One hallmark of professionalism is the ability to identify when the lawyer or others are using assumptions to fill in information, to identify solutions to problems, or to negatively evaluate a client or her situation. Lawyers in cross-cultural settings may have greater difficulty sorting out when they are making assumptions and when they are using facts. The Habits develop ways to surface assumptions or to warn the lawyer when to look for them and gather more facts to test their accuracy.

Section one identifies some ways that culture influences lawyering and the potential issues that may arise in cross-cultural lawyer-client interactions. This section introduces common themes that appear in all cultures and identifies some of the ways that these themes may result in cultural differences. These cultural differences influence the attorney-client communication, lawyer and client expectations for the legal system and potential strategies and solutions to the problems that clients bring to lawyers.

Section Two of the materials identifies the Principles and Habits that are the skills and perspectives that can be used to identify our own cultural norms and those of our clients and to communicate effectively, knowing these differences. As one anthropologist has recognized, there is “a great distance between knowing that my gaze transforms and becoming aware of the ways that my gaze transforms.” [7] To help lawyers identify the ways their gaze transforms and the cultural bridges that are needed for joint work between lawyers and clients, we have developed Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering. We use the term “habit” because we see the possibility of lawyers incorporating ways of lawyering that, overtime, can become habitual ways of interacting with clients that recognize the individuality of each client. [8]

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