As noted in my previous entry, the first step to building a foreign language practice is to choose a language that you’re comfortable with and holds an interest for you. Above all, the goal is to develop language abilities in your office that maximize your ability to effectively serve your client base.
For some, like me, the choice will be an easy one, especially if you already speak a foreign language that accommodates your target client base. If the fit is not as natural and obvious for you, though, there are several factors to consider.
1. Do You Speak a Foreign Language?
This is probably the most obvious point. If you are already fluent in a language, or have developed at least some ability, you should naturally consider expanding your practice toward that language. If your non-English speaking clients can communicate directly with you, it eliminates the need for an interpreter and immediately builds trust with those clients. However, this will only work if your language abilities fit your client base. If your practice or local constituency doesn’t speak the same language, you’ll need to consider alternatives.
2. What Foreign Language or Culture Interests You?
Learning a foreign language, or refining your skill level, requires a commitment of time and energy. By choosing a language that interests you, you’ll be more likely to stick with it and reach your linguistic goal. Similarly, choosing a language spoken in a cultural group that interests you will help you master the delicate nuances and avoid any miscommunications that might alienate your target client base. Your natural curiosity about any given language or culture gives you another level on which to connect.
3. Do Your Clients Speak a Foreign Language?
An attorney’s business, first and foremost, is client service. If a subset of your clients already speaks a particular language, you should focus on offering abilities in that language. The purpose is twofold: not only do you better serve your present clients, but you create a connection that will encourage them to refer family and friends who also speak that language. You also increase your ability to understand your client, and vice versa, preventing complaints about misunderstandings or miscommunications.
4. What Immigrant Communities Are Near You?
Understanding your community’s immigrant population can help you identify the language needs. The Miami area, for example, has large Latin American immigrant populations, making Spanish a likely choice. Chicago has vast Hispanic and Asian populations, so the choice may depend on which group is closer to you or better fits your abilities or practice. Likewise, Washington, D.C. has large populations from El Salvador, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, so there are multiple groups in need of service. On the other hand, most Midwestern and South Central states—with the notable exceptions of Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas—have smaller populations of immigrants and thus offer fewer options for developing a bilingual practice.
5. Does a Certain Immigrant Community Make Sense for Your Practice?
The answer to this, of course, depends on your practice area. That said, certain characteristics of the U.S. immigrant population (PDF) can help you identify specific needs. For instance, half of U.S.-born immigrants are between the ages of 18 and 44. European immigrants are more likely to be female, while more African immigrants are male. By researching these facts and trends—in addition to employment, income level, marital status, and parental status—you’ll be better able to make informed decisions about your language specialty based on your geographical location.
Ultimately, choosing a language will help you to better serve a specialized group of clients. By selecting a language in which to offer legal services, you’ll create one more tool in your legal arsenal that you can use to grow your practice in a highly targeted way. As you serve clients and demonstrate that you truly can speak their language—literally and figuratively—you’ll begin to reap the rewards in the form of community referrals and lasting credibility.
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®.