Briefly imagine that a new attorney starts working at your firm or within your practice and is assigned a project that requires them to make client contact. You assume all went well, but a few days later, you receive a call from the client who tells you that they no longer want to work with the new attorney because they made the client feel uncomfortable or have offended them without even knowing it. Such miscommunication between attorney and client could have serious consequences for your practice. You could lose the client or be forced to work with the client alone without help from the new attorney. Depending on your case load, it could be a problem to have to exclude the new attorney. Should you have done anything in advance to prevent damage to the client relationship? Even though the new attorney did not intend to be offensive, they managed to be off-putting to the client. Unless the new attorney is a member of their clients’ “diverse” community, they may need specific diversity training to most professionally interact with new clients for the first time.
Diversity training may need to be implemented within your own practice to avoid such social faux pas. Standard practice is to train new attorneys to interact with a more diverse work force. However, new attorney diversity training also needs to prepare new attorneys and/or law clerks to work with your diverse clientele.
Companies and government agencies have started to implement diversity training based on ever increasing diversity in the workforce. However, many of those trainings are not geared toward the diversity of clients. A generalized diversity training may be helpful in dealing with your diverse clients, but a client specific training with your direct clients in mind is the most progressive and productive.
We want to discuss our varied experiences with recognizing diversity in law practice. Our goal is to show some of the myriad of subjects you may want to address with your inexperienced attorneys so that they do not unintentionally offend your culturally diverse clients. We will do this in a question-answer format, providing our readers with useful insight on handling a diverse clientele. We both work in the field of Indian law, and therefore, we will primarily focus on that particular cultural perspective within our responses.
When you started practicing law did you benefit from any diversity training or mentorship?
Sheila Corbine (SC): When I first started practicing in Indian Legal Services, I worked directly with several of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribes in Wisconsin, interacting mostly with tribal elders. As a Chippewa tribal member, I had an advantage in that I did not have to work too hard to gain the trust of the clients, because in Wisconsin, my last name helped the elders recognize that I was one of them. However, it was still important for me to let them know who my mother and father were, and we talked about those people and events we had in common. Indian country can be kind of small, so it is not uncommon to discover you know many of the same people. However, it is important to let young or inexperienced non-native attorneys know that this seemingly introductory small talk is important. I have also found in my practice that many tribal members, once they trust you, will help explain various customs or practices.
Lindsey Schuler (LS): Upon entering firm practice as a law clerk and then as an associate, I was not required to participate in any formal diversity training. However, when I began taking on a new project, senior attorneys in the firm were diligent about explaining specific clients. Their explanations not only included the history and background of the client, but political and social relations that also impacted the project. For example, when working with tribal governments, I am often given information about a specific tribal council’s political history and the tribe’s most recent goals.
Have you ever implemented diversity training for new staff member before having them work directly with clients?
SC: I have never implemented a formal or standardized training. However, especially when I worked in-house, I, as well as the other experienced attorneys I worked with, made it a point to have new attorneys shadow us to court and client meetings. The best training starts by introducing your new attorney personally to the clients. If your clients trust you, they may be more willing to trust the new attorney if endorsed and introduced by you. Further, if you know some of the issues and possible historical trauma facing a group of people, inform the new attorney of this important background information. For instance, it may not be practical or fully relevant to make all new attorneys practicing in Indian law read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” to gain some historical perspective. However, the trauma caused by Indian boarding schools has distinctly impacted Indian people, and influences how they react to “outsiders” and whether they have built-in trust issues. It is important that the inexperienced attorney have whatever perspectives you can provide. From personal experience, it is typical for clients from the Native American community to offer food. To build client relationships and to show respect, the proper response is to accept the food even if you are on a diet or you do not think the food looks great. By accepting the offer, you will do much toward gaining their trust if you take the food offered, as it can be insulting to refuse, especially until they get to know you.
Have you ever had missteps in your legal practice as a result of not understanding a cultural or ethnic diversity aspect of a client?
LS: Although I have not irretrievably ruined client relations, I have had some interactions where my lack of cultural understanding probably made clients less comfortable than they could have been. Specifically, I was once working with a client to copyright Baptist gospel music. My clients were very passionate about their religious work, particularly songwriting and recording. Not coming from a Baptist background, I was unable to relate to their passion for gospel music. The client was concerned that my lack of passion would translate to poor work product and offered me a CD of their recorded music to introduce me to their work. Like Sheila mentioned with accepting food from Native American clients, it is best to accept gifts from clients to avoid insulting them, and the same applied to this situation. The client just wanted to be assured that even though we came from different backgrounds, that I would provide my best representation.
In another interaction with diverse clients, my lack of cultural understanding had the potential to impact a client relationship all because of a handshake. I had been wondering for quite a while before I asked one of my colleagues, but one day I broached the subject why most indigenous peoples have what I considered a meek handshake. My colleague shared with me that many indigenous communities perceive a strong handshake as an attempt to overpower the other party. I unknowingly could have been recognized as offensive to many of my peers. As the indigenous legal community is very small, if you offend someone, the news has the potential to quickly be shared with others. Now equipped with this knowledge, I am very careful to recognize that my own social views may not be the same as my peers and clients.
Can you give some examples of a more formalized or structured diversity training(s) you received, and if so, did you find them useful?
LS: The first time I clearly remember cultural or ethnic diversity being addressed as a concern for practicing lawyers was during law school. I took an intellectual property contract drafting course focused on contracts with global clients. We were assigned reading from the Parker Pen Company’s A Guide to International Behavior: Do’s and Taboos Around the World. Our course stressed that the legal field is increasingly global, and as attorneys we may encounter clients or fellow attorneys from diverse cultural backgrounds that could influence our legal interaction. Another course on indigenous tribal governments addressed Navajo culture, specifically through Raymond D. Austin’s Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance. Often, in indigenous communities, ancient tribal values, customs, and norms are used to solve contemporary legal issues. Navajo cultural traditions, like Navajo peacemaking as a form of dispute resolution, are fully integrated into legal practice, similar to the way American norms and traditions are used in modern court rooms. I found these early introductions to client diversity helpful because it instilled the idea that legal success may depend on my, the lawyer’s, understanding of the client’s background.
In conclusion, learning the rules of law is just one aspect of legal training, but not alone sufficient to produce a good lawyer. Future attorneys must also learn how to interact with their peers and clients. A large aspect of interacting with others is through mutual understanding of cultural and ethnic practices. Attorneys regularly encounter diversity within their legal practice that requires them to evaluate their own understanding of the world around them. Learning to think from a global perspective and understand that others in the legal community approach interactions with their own cultural or ethnic experiences makes better lawyers. Training future lawyers to recognize and understand that their co-workers and clients come from diverse backgrounds will create more empathetic and successful lawyers because they will have the skills to address legal problems from multiple angles.
About the Authors
Sheila Corbine (left) is a partner and Lindsey Schuler (right) is an associate with Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, LLP, a firm that works almost solely with Indian tribes and tribal economic development corporations. Ms. Corbine, who has practiced for 22 years, including with Indian Legal Services and in-house with several Indian tribes, also is a part-time tribal court judge for the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, where she is an enrolled member.
(Feature Image Credit: ShutterStock)