Smaller Firms Carve Out Niche With Bilingual Attorneys

Jay Stapleton, The Connecticut Law Tribune, August 31, 2012

Attorney Americo S. Ventura had a client facing a driving while intoxicated charge in Danbury, Conn. Because the man was from Brazil and spoke only Portuguese, the state Judicial Branch was required to appoint an interpreter to let the man know what was happening with his case.

During a plea hearing, Ventura explained that a deal had been worked out for the man to plead no contest to a lesser offense of driving while impaired. The interpreter, however, mistook a few keys word in Portuguese and asked the man if he was in fact guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol.

“I interrupted,” said Ventura, who jumped into the conversation and made sure the plea colloquy started over. “That’s the advantage of having an attorney who speaks the same language.”

In the ever-competitive world of general practice law firms, many attorneys have noticed the advantages of carving out a niche for themselves by having someone on hand who speaks another language or two — and then advertising that fact. While Spanish-speaking lawyers are in the greatest demand, in recent years firms have begun advertising legal services for people who speak Korean and Chinese as well.

In that way Connecticut is like the rest of the country. The need for Korean-speaking lawyers was brought to the forefront recently in the massive patent lawsuit between Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics over their smartphones and tablets. Because Samsung is a South Korean company, lawyers representing Apple and the International Trade Commission brought in more than 90 contract lawyers and document reviewers to help comb through reams of Korean documents.

That sort of ad hoc approach is how many Connecticut law firms have dealt with the occasional need to translate legal documents or provide interpreters for non-English-speaking clients. Barry Hawkins, who is president of the Connecticut Bar Association and a real estate and litigation partner at Shipman & Goodwin, said he often sees internal emails from Shipman lawyers looking for someone who speaks one language or another.

“We’re lucky,” he said. Of the 140 people in the firm’s Hartford office, about 30 of them have enough skill in another language “to pitch hit,” Hawkins said. “Of course, that’s quite different from doing formal legal translations. For those instances, we use outside services.”

Smaller law firms also sometimes enlist temporary help by sending emails to colleagues in the profession. But with their limited resources, these firms can’t afford to constantly pay to bring in paid temps or to outsource work. The alternative is to hire multilingual attorneys and staffers.

Consider attorney Deron Freeman, who has a criminal defense and personal injury practice in Hartford. He does not speak Spanish himself, but three members of his office staff do, and he makes a point of advertising his services to the Spanish community. “It was a concerted effort,” he said. “I have a huge Spanish-speaking clientele and I think there’s a growing demand.”

Other law firms have used family heritage and their own second-language skills from their immigrant backgrounds to attract and keep business. At Podorowsky, Thompson & Baron, in New Britain, Conn., callers are told “for English, press one. For Polish, press two.”

Partner Adrian Baron, who writes a blog called The Nutmeg Lawyer that is available in 50 languages, grew up speaking Polish with his family in Rocky Hill, Conn. “I never thought I would wind up using the Polish language professionally, but there are over 300,000 Polish people living in Connecticut,” Baron said.

He represents clients on a variety of general practice areas, including criminal law, estate planning, immigration, real estate and workers’ compensation.

Located in the heart of the Polish district of New Britain, Baron’s firm has transitioned the practice to more aggressively attract Polish clients. “We get a lot of people coming in because we can offer real estate closings entirely in Polish,” he said. The office has recently added other languages to meet a growing demand, including Spanish, Ukrainian and Portuguese.

Baron said it’s better for an attorney to be able to sit across the table from someone who speaks a language other than English, and communicate with them, than to bring in someone to translate. “Even with a [good] translator, there are some words that don’t come out right,” he said. “Some things get lost in translation.”

Baron has noticed new firms in New Britain taking similar steps. “You’re seeing more law firms around here hiring Polish-speaking staff members,” he said. “But most of them will have a secretary [or paralegal] who speaks Spanish or Polish, but not an attorney who speaks those languages.”

Elizabeth Yen, a partner at Hudson Cook in New Haven who represents banks and lenders in licensing agreements and other transactional work, was born in the U.S. but speaks some Chinese. Because she is a member of the Connecticut Asian Pacific Bar Association, Yen said she “occasionally gets email blasts looking for lawyers who speak a certain language or a certain dialect” to communicate with clients of other law firms involved in a business transaction.

She said speaking another language is well and good, but any benefit an attorney gains depends on their legal background. For instance, she said, “I was born and raised here, but I am not conversant in English language patent terminology.” Further, she said, most business law practice in the U.S. is going to be handled in English.

Yen is aware of law firms that cater to non-English speakers. “If someone is buying a house, yes, bringing them in contact with lawyers who understand them makes it easier if they speak the same language. But is it absolutely essential? Maybe not.”

CLINICS AND SMALL CLAIMS

But is it helpful? Just ask Americo Ventura.

Ventura, 82, is a son of immigrants himself. In his practice, he quickly set out to represent Portuguese-speaking clients. The practice has evolved over the years, from one primarily involved in real estate transactions to a litigation and personal injury firm. One of the attorneys at his firm, now called Ventura Ribeiro & Smith, is Rute Mendes, who was recently honored by the Danbury Bar Association for the legal outreach she has done in the non-English speaking community, which in turn has helped growth at the firm.

Born in Portugal herself, Mendes leads a clinic one night a week for two hours. Most of the people who come seeking legal help speak Spanish or Portuguese, although a growing number speak Asian languages. Mendes said the lawyers’ efforts range from answering questions about landlord-tenant issues to filing small claims complaints “because someone bought a car that doesn’t work.”

Because she speaks Portuguese, Mendes is able to talk with clients from the regions of the Azores and islands of Madeira, as well as to Brazilians. She can also use Spanish to communicate with clients from Mexico and Central America.

Sometimes, dialects vary and words get mixed up. “Once I was talking with a man from Brazil and I asked him how he was injured, using the word in Portuguese and he was offended,” she said. “Because he thought I was saying he was handicapped or disabled.”

After she explained what she meant again, the man laughed it off.

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