Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Series: Cross-Cultural Lawyering

By Niya Fonville

As humans, we are multi-dimensional beings made up of several identities, including race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability. Cultures are inextricably connected to these identities and are learned from what we see, read, hear and experience. We carry them with us wherever we go and, collectively, they make up who we are at any particular point in our lives. They may influence our decisions, impact our lived experiences, play a role in how we choose to engage with others, and provide the lens through which we see the world. Acknowledging this truth is a good starting point when engaging in equity and inclusion work.

As chair of the Pro Bono Committee’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion subcommittee, I am pleased to announce the launch of a multi-part blog series surrounding DEI issues in legal work. Each entry will provide a high-level view of a resource relevant to a particular topic, which we encourage you to review as a follow up. While many of the topics may relate to sects of the population that are served by pro bono projects, historically under-supported communities, the information presented is not exclusive to pro bono work and should be applied as you engage with any client.

In order to provide competent representation, lawyers must go beyond knowing the substantive area of law. Instead, you must also seek to know your client as a human. In this first installment, I will discuss the concept of cross-cultural lawyering. In October 2020, I attended a CLE hosted by the NC Pro Bono Resource Center, which highlighted Jean Koh Peters’ and Sue Bryant’s Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering, a publication long used by law school clinicians to teach students how to be culturally aware when engaging with clients. It is this publication that I will feature and use as a guide for this post. To recognize the role that cultures play in the way we see the world, behave, and interpret others’ actions, lawyers must be able to navigate these differences in ways that produce effective communication and build trust and a connection with clients. The authors developed the following five habits to help lawyers achieve this goal.

  • Habit 1: Identify similarities and differences between you and client and analyze their impact on how you approach the case, including understandings, misunderstandings, and assumptions.
  • Habit 2: Evaluate how cultural similarities and differences impact a client’s experiences opposing counsel, adjudicators, and other stakeholders in the legal system.
  • Habit 3: Revisit assumptions made about clients and identify possible alternative reasons for their behavior, particularly when we find ourselves being judgmental.
  • Habit 4: Be mindful of routine techniques that may be problematic in cross-cultural communicating, such as saying “just let me know if you have any questions” when meeting with a client whose culture may view interrupting as inappropriately questioning authority.
  • Habit 5: Recognize that we don’t always get it right. When we find ourselves leaning into biases or stereotypes, it is important to take corrective actions to get the relationship back on track.

The intersectionality of identities and cultures make it such that there are no bright line rules. Meaning, we cannot apply a formula that will work for an entire group of people. Instead, this work is a continuous process. However, I hope that integrating these habits into your relationship with clients will help you connect and effectively serve them.