How to Deal With Foreign and Non-Native Clients

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 15, 2016 6:59 AM

Unless you're part of a large multi-national law firm, you'll have only your small firm or even only yourself to rely on when dealing with clients from foreign countries. This leads to a conundrum. You want clients from across the globe, but are you equipped to handle them?

Perhaps you are, but it never hurts to be politely reminded of some of the basic best practices a lawyer should follow in when dealing with a foreign client.

Don't Use Legalese

It's bad enough when you start over-using lawyer speak with your native, American-born clients; it's even worse when you try and pull the same trick on your non-American clients.

This is the habit that many lawyers just cannot seem to break. Sometimes lawyers do this naturally; other times lawyers use legalese to "wow" their clients. From an ethical point of view, it's probably not the best strategy because there's already a heightened chance that your client is not as fluent in English as she may be in another language. Use plain English. It will facilitate better client relations.

Give "Face"

The whole concept of "face" is one that perhaps seems alien to many Westerners, but disregard its importance at your peril.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, "face" is a general umbrella term that generally refers to outward expressions of respect for another person. It places great emphasis on protocol and ceremony rather than actual feelings of respect, in truth. And this is key. As an American-born Chinese, I can tell you first-hand the importance of this. If you embarrass your client in front of another person, this will cost you not only that single client, but others as well.

You must observe face and outward appearances of respect. This protocol of respect will be especially prevalent in your clients who come from the Eastern hemisphere.

To think of this from another angle, just consider its Western equivalent. After all, butt-kissing is alive and well in corporate America.

When in Rome

Sometimes it will pay to at least adopt a few cultural norms (for a short while) that will help your client ease into a more comfortable and talkative mood. Examples of this would be giving face (as noted above) or knowing how to speak a few key phrases in their native tongue. Even if the client can understand and speak English, it usually does not hurt to be aware of current political or current events taking place in their country. A colleague of mine recently secured a wealthy Iranian client because he was able to successfully engage in a discussion with him about local politics.

Use an Assistant Who Can Speak the Language

Nothing bridges a cultural gap better than language. If you can speak a client's native tongue, that alone will bring you clients. The problem is that, obviously, you must already be able to speak that language. Most likely, you are not going to take time from your busy day as a lawyer to learn Farsi or get fluent in Cantonese.

For solos, this will be difficult. The most realistic solution is to work with someone -- preferably an assistant or paralegal -- who can speak the language with fluency and aplomb. If you talk to the client concurrently, the client will feel more comfortable with you handling her legal issue.

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