Learning (or Mastering) a Second Language

One of the biggest favors that you can do for yourself and your career as an attorney is to develop new lawyering skills. A “skill” in our profession can take a lot of forms. Typically, most attorneys usually associate developing professional skills with learning a new field of law or deepening their understanding of a field they are already familiar with. But this myopic view of professional development can stunt your growth in some ways. In a job market that’s getting more crowded than the Duggar family’s Dodge Caravan, it’s important to distinguish yourself from other attorneys with your skill set. Some attorneys might argue that the best way to do this is to get an LL.M. or get some kind of specialty certification. But, for many attorneys, a more profitable—and interesting—use of time would be to learn or develop the ability speaking another language.

For solo and small firm attorneys, often the biggest challenge is getting a client in the door. And I would argue that a large part of that challenge involves one’s ability to relate and speak to clients. Often, we measure the ability to relate to clients by considering the effectiveness of a firm webpage or through the first phone call with a client. Now, I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining how important it is to speak the same language as your client because… duh. Suffice it to say that if you or your firm only speak English, you aren’t even communicating on the same frequency as a whole demographic of clients.

Most people see the benefits of learning or further mastering a second language, and would love to give it a crack if there was time enough or demand for it in their career path. But time for professional development is a zero-sum game. So the question isn’t “would learning to speak ‘x’ be good for your practice,” it’s “would learning to speak ‘x’ be more valuable than getting an LL.M. in ‘y?’” And I think that, generally speaking, the answer is “yes.” Obviously, much of this analysis depends on what your field of practice is and whether you are dying to go work for a big firm or want to stay small. But for many lawyers, learning a new language could be extremely valuable.

 The minority isn’t much of a minority

It’s no secret that the population of non-native English speakers in the United States is growing, and that population needs lawyers like anybody else. When you can communicate and relate to some segment of the non-english speaking population, you’ve opened yourself up to an entire sphere of new potential clients. Obviously, if you have very little training in Spanish, for example, it would take a significant amount of time to get yourself up to the level where you could counsel clients purely in Spanish. So depending on how proficient you currently are with a foreign language, the amount of time and effort you would have to spend getting yourself up to speed will vary widely.

Picking up a language is “muchisimo trabajo”

I speak Spanish at a fairly proficient level in everyday conversation. But I have had to spend a decent amount of time familiarizing myself with legal terms; which, I’ll be honest, isn’t fun. It’s much cooler to riff off your dinner order at a tacqueria in Spanish than it is to explain the process of a Chapter 7 “bancarrota” to a client. But I suspect the same amount of hassle and energy would go into learning from scratch how to properly litigate a contract dispute. And by focusing my efforts on improving my ability to speak another language at the level that’s required to communicate with a non-English speaking client, I’ve distinguished myself among my competitors in a way that can’t necessarily be done by adding a new field of practice.

My point is obviously debatable, and I may be skewed in my perspective. But if you are a solo or small firm attorney with some language experience, learning how to speak to non-English speaking clients could help you enter into a whole new market. A new market of clients that otherwise wouldn’t be available to you (or simply wouldn’t care) if you spent the same amount of time furthering your expertise in a strictly “legal” capacity.

(photo: Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Jennifer G. says:

    I would caution someone who has zero language background against spending the time learning a language for their law practice. Legal language is far more difficult than what you get from Rosetta Stone. I have an undergrad degree in German and interned at a German law office and it was only after that do I feel comfortable enough to speak/use German legalese. In fact, around legal translation circles, there are some who believe that legal translation is best done by native, legally trained, speakers and I tend to agree. http://www.lawlinguists.com/ That being said, if you have a background in and passion for learing the language, by all means, start to learn the legalese. My background in German helped lead me to my main area of interest, international estate planning. I’m currently writing a series of posts here on Lawyerist on expanding that practice. One of my favorite files is one where I’m helping Americans with a German inheritance. Both my English only speaking clients and the German PR are pretty relieved there’s someone to explain what’s going on to the devisees.

  2. Avatar Tyler White says:

    I think that that is a fair word of caution. I tried to convey the fact that it is a lot of work to get yourself up to the level of being able to counsel clients in another language, and obviously if are starting COMPLETELY from scratch, this would be exponentially more difficult. I think it is a case by case consideration of how much time and effort it would take.

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