Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering - Section 2

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

Habits and Principles for Cross-Cultural Lawyering

The Habits are based on the belief that if lawyers can find ways of identifying assumptions that hamper their ability to lawyer based on fact, lawyers would, on a day-to-day basis, achieve better cross-cultural communication and understanding in their lawyering. The Principles articulate the underlying rationale for the Habits and the Habits give concrete ways to identify our assumptions – which is the most difficult and painful part of practicing cross-cultural lawyering. We believe that once these assumptions are identified, lawyers have the wherewithal to put those assumptions aside in favor of the actual facts of the individual case.

The Habits develop ways, both in the moment and upon reflection, to recognize when we have put on cultural blinders and, as a result, interpreted or predicted behavior incorrectly, judged clients negatively or used stereotype or bias in place of facts.

Four Principles

The Habits are based on four core principles about practice, clients, and learning.

  • Lawyering is often cross-cultural and therefore all lawyers need cross-cultural skills. Lawyers who explicitly examine the cross-cultural issues in a case will increase client trust, improve communication and enhance problem-solving on behalf of clients;
  • Refraining from judgments and being open to difference is an essential skill for effective cross-cultural lawyers. We believe that openness is a skill that can be learned and applied towards clients and ourselves. Inevitably, we will continue to interpret behavior through our cultural lens. To honestly unearth our own cultural assumptions, stereotypes and biases and examine them, we need to view them without shame or judgment or self-condemnation, but with an eye towards understanding them and, where necessary, rectifying or eradicating them. To understand our clients, we need to use the same kind of nonjudgmental approach;
  • Remaining present with the individual client, ever respecting her dignity, voice and story allows lawyers to avoid stereotyping. This principle, a goal of all lawyering, is especially difficult to attain in high pressure, high volume practices, where the “efficiency” of categorizing and generalizing and severe time and resource constraints, can lead the lawyer away from an individualized understanding of each client. Especially when we are studying culture and the ways our clients may be socialized by their cultures, we need to remember that while we are all influenced by culture, we are also individuals who may or may not embrace all of the cultural values of our socialization process;
  • Knowing ourselves as cultural beings is key to being able to identify when we are using biases or stereotypes, when we are misinterpreting or filling in, and why we are judging people who are different. This final principle recognizes that developing competence in cross-cultural lawyering is an ongoing, lifelong process that never ends. To begin this process, a lawyer must understand and accept the role that culture plays in shaping his or her values, judgments, interpretations and the potential roadblocks to understanding others. Our experiences and our cultures create strong categories of in-group and out-group and cause us to stereotype the “other.” Over time, a lawyer can learn to befriend herself as a cultural being, through self-understanding.

Five Habits

The Habits One and Two give the lawyer concrete ways to identify cultural differences and commonalties between the lawyer-client, client-legal system and lawyer-legal system. These Habits also provide the lawyer with a framework for analyzing the attorney-client interaction, hidden issues that may exist in a case and the cross-cultural challenges that may arise in the client-legal system interaction. Habit Three, Parallel Universes Thinking, allows the lawyer to enter the cultural imagination of another and develop alternative explanations for client behavior. Habit Four focuses on communicating more effectively across cultures and identifying signs of communication problems. Finally, Habit Five encourages reflecting on the norms, biases and stereotypes that may interfere with quality lawyering and finding ways to overcome these.

Developing these habits, like all skill development, requires practice to be mastered. We are still working on mastering these habits and enjoying the benefits that come when we are able to learn from clients and interact in meaningful cross-cultural relationships. Whenever, we introduce the habits, we say these are works in progress. By this we mean that we are still working on making them our own habits and that we are still working on examining whether the individual habits that we propose work to promote lawyer-client interaction.

For information on the Five Habits, click on the appropriate title below:

Habit One: Degrees of Separation and Connection
Habit Two: The Three Rings
Habit Three: Parallel Universes
Habit Four: Red Flags and Remedies
Habit Five: The Camel's Back

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