Paul Perez has been with Solo Practice University since we opened our virtual doors March 20, 2009. Born and raised in Queens, New York, during his time at SPU he has graduated New York Law School, passed the bar, been gainfully employed, while simultaneously creating and building his solo practice in immigration law for Spanish speakers. We are very pleased to have him join Solo Practice University® as a monthly columnist sharing his experiences creating and building a bilingual solo practice.
As a new lawyer seeking advice on how to go solo, one of the best tips I received was from a Solo Practice University member and mentor, Chuck Newton, who advised me to focus on a niche area of law as a way to best market my business. (For more about niche practices, read Susan Cartier Liebel’s two-part series, “Should You Create A Niche Practice”, Debra Bruce’s, “Narrow Your Niche to Broaden Your Client Base, and Rachel Rodgers’, “Niche Slapped: How I Chose a Niche Area of Law to Practice”, ”)
According to the U.S. Census Bureau more than 55 million people in the United States in 2007 (19.7% of the population) spoke a language other than English at home. This represents a 140% change since 1980. The largest growth was for Spanish speakers (23.4 million change). Groups with the lowest proportion of speaking English very well include Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.
SE HABLA ESPANOL
Based on my existing clients’ needs, I have focused my practice on family-based immigration law for Spanish-speakers. When a Spanish-speaker does an online search for an immigration lawyer, they are more likely to see my ads and visit my website because they are in Spanish. This shift in focus has helped me stand out from the many immigration lawyers who do not offer bilingual legal services.
My clients appreciate the ability to speak to their lawyer and get legal information in their native language. Because I offer legal services in Spanish, my clients often refer me to their non-English speaking friends and family. It has been my experience that non-English speakers often do not get legal assistance because of language barriers. Those that do hire English-only law firms often find themselves frustrated because of their inability to communicate with their lawyers. These clients are often taken advantage of because they do not understand the U.S. legal system and do not know they have certain rights as clients. The result of all this, is that a very large population in this country does not have equal access to the legal system .
If you were in Mexico or some other non-English speaking country and had been arrested , how would you choose your lawyer? How important would it be that your lawyer speak English? Would you be able to understand the attorney agreement without a translation? Would you trust your friend who knows some Spanish to interpret an important meeting or hearing or would you want a certified interpreter? These are some of the challenges non-English speakers face in the U.S.
TEN STEPS TO BUILDING A BILINGUAL PRACTICE
By making some changes in how they deliver legal services, law firms can remove language-barriers and improve access to the legal system for non-English speakers. Following these ten steps will help you build a bilingual practice and get more clients:
1. Identify your target foreign language group.
Choose a language that makes sense for you and that you are interested in. Things to consider include: Are you already proficient in a language or did you take courses in high school and college? Are there immigrant communities near you? How many lawyers in that community offer legal services in the client’s native language?
2. Select a qualified interpreter service for client meetings and court appearances.
Qualified interpreters may be required for certain meetings and appearances. Well intentioned family members or law firm staff may not have the proficiency required to interpret complex discussions. Options to consider include interpreters by phone, interpreters by video, or an interpreter who will actually be present at the meeting.
3. Select a bilingual receptionist.
Bilingual receptionists should be able to schedule appointments as well as answer commonly asked questions. Prepare a plan of how calls from potential and existing non-English speaking clients will be handled. If you have a receptionist for regular office hours, you may want to consider a receptionist service for when your office is closed.
4. Select a translating service to translate written communications.
A good translating service will provide summary, draft and/or certified translations. Some will also provide website localization and multicultural marketing services. This aspect cannot be overlooked. Mistakes in translation can make the firm look unprofessional and turn potential clients away.
5. Hire bilingual staff.
Law firms should seek to hire bilingual lawyers, paralegals and secretaries. This will help ensure that the firm can provide services to non-English speakers in various languages, not just the target language.
6. Improve your language proficiency.
This is a long term project with the goal of being able to communicate directly with your non-English speaking client. Options include language software programs, online language programs, and language schools. According to The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, some of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn are Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, French, Afrikaans, Italian, Norwegian, and Romanian. Some of the most difficult are Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Arabic. (For more on language learning see, “I Learned to Speak Four Languages In A Few Years: Here’s How”, and www.howtolearnanylanguage.com)
7. Join local organizations.
Joining local organizations will help improve the firm’s visibility and help you understand the needs and desires of the people in that community. This may lead to invitations to conduct seminars and workshops. Look to join small business associations, church groups, and not for profits serving the local community.
8. Offer seminars and other educational content in a foreign language.
Educational marketing is a great way for potential clients to get to know you. Your job isn’t to teach the specifics of how to file for divorce or start a personal injury action, since your audience will forget most of what you say, especially if it is very detail specific. Rather, your goal should be to answer frequently asked questions and get potential clients to like you and trust you.
9. Create a foreign language online marketing campaign.
Everybody is online today, whether they speak English or not. As Susan Cartier Liebel recently noted in, “Making A Case For Social Media For Lawyers” 48% of Young Americans find out about news through Facebook, the average user has 130 Friends and is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events. Social media and online marketing can be a powerful tool for word of mouth referrals.
10. Offer meeting locations in immigrant communities.
The best way to market to your target community is by offering to meet clients in their community. Depending on where you live, it can sometimes be difficult for non-English speakers to travel to where your office is located. By offering a means to meet with clients in their community, you will stand out from other firms and will truly become a lawyer the community can trust.
In the coming months, I’ll discuss in detail each of these ten steps and help you to build a bilingual practice by sharing best practices and offering reviews of products and services I have used or rejected and why.
It is my hope that you commit to offering legal services to non-English speakers as a way of both improving access to the legal system and to reach more clients.
If you are offering legal services to non-English speakers please share how you have modified your existing practice or whether you have a stated goal to create and build a bilingual practice and how you are doing.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.