Here Are the Keys to Working with an Interpreter

Attorneys face many challenges when working with clients, communication being one. For someone in need of legal services and who is a limited English speaker, finding a qualified lawyer who speaks your native language can be extremely challenging. Although there has always been the need for bilingual attorneys, as the number of limited English speakers in the United States grows, so does the demand for legal interpreters.

Need for Qualified Legal Interpreters

As discussed in 10 Steps To Creating And Building A Bilingual Solo Practice, more than 55 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, 24.5 million do not speak English “very well.” English speaking lawyers can serve this underrepresented community by utilizing the services of legal interpreters. Some of the key reasons that legal interpretation services should be provided are to:

  • Ensure complex legal information being discussed between the lawyer and client is fully understood;
  • Ensure all parties involved in an adversary proceeding or the client in an administrative proceeding hears the same message so that one party does not have an advantage over another;
  • Ensure the justice system is accessible to all Americans, regardless of English proficiency.

Responsibilities of Legal Interpreters

Attorneys have the responsibility to hire legal interpreters who possess the appropriate qualifications for the job. This means the interpreter is certified by a recognized organization, is fluent in the target language and dialect, is culturally competent and has prior experience with case relevant terminology. A well intentioned family member or friend can not replace the expertise of a legal interpreter, and can often lead to lack of full disclosure as clients may not feel comfortable speaking about sensitive topics in front of their family member or friend.  A good interpreter is constantly improving their craft and building their language library. The legal interpreter must be able to provide accurate and complete language interpretation in a manner of seconds, while maintaining the same meaning and tone of the original message.  One can imagine what effect a monotone interpreter can have on a fiery cross-examination or on a emotionally charged testimony.

Tips for Attorneys

As mentioned, it is critical for attorneys to hire qualified interpreters, with expertise and experience in the legal system. Some courts have full-time and part-time interpreters or at least have lists of qualified interpreters.  The National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators Database is a great tool for finding a court interpreter or translator.  Attorneys should build strong relationships with interpreters, setting high standards of expectations. The following are some tips for building a strong relationship with a legal interpreter.

Availability – The need for an interpreter can arise at any time. Therefore, it is important to maintain a list of legal interpreters to be able to quickly schedule one for the time slot needed.  Locating an interpreter for some languages may take weeks.

Preparation – Just as attorneys prepare for any proceeding, legal interpreters also need to prepare by reviewing frequently used words from prior proceedings, reviewing translations and important documents and meeting with the limited English speaker to ensure there are no conflicts or challenges to the interpretation.

Interpretation Mode – Interpreters can interpret as the message is being spoken or after every few sentences.  The exact mode of interpretation would be different based on the interpreter’s skills but also based on the actual needs of the proceeding. Therefore, an attorney would need to identify and be cognizant of which mode the interpreter will use to ensure there is sufficient time allotted and all parties are aware of the proper speaking protocol.

Complete Services – It is critical that when there is a limited English speaker client, everything spoken and written, whether in or out of the court, must be interpreted or translated in the client’s native language.  Otherwise, the client cannot be fully present and apprised of what is going on with the court proceeding or legal service provided.


For someone who speaks a foreign language, an already complex legal system usually becomes even more complicated. Not only is there the language barrier but also the challenge in understanding all the legal jargon. Even with good intentions, unless legal interpretation is provided when needed clients will not receive the best legal assistance possible. Although there could be an expense involved, this is a vital service that could easily have a huge impact on the overall outcome of a court proceeding.

Have you used an interpreter before?  Please share your experience.

For additional resources for definitions of legal terms and information on the laws of the U.S. and certain other countries, check out NYCLA’s (New York County Lawyers’ Association) Multilingual Lawyering Committee website.

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®.

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2 comments on “Here Are the Keys to Working with an Interpreter

  • I am an attorney and legally-certified sign language interpreter. The national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf website has a searchable database for legally certified interpreters. The name of the certification is the SC:L (Specialist Certificate: Legal) and the search can be limited to only SC:L-certified interpreters. I have heard of many occasions where unqualified sign language interpreters are hired to interpret in legal settings and it need not be so. Additionally, the visual nature of American Sign Language requires different placement of the interpreter in the courtroom as well as during attorney-client meetings. There are several other differences when working with a sign language interpreter as compared to a spoken-language interpreter.

    • Excellent points Catherine and thanks for letting us know about the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf ( If you don’t mind, do you have any tips/suggestions for lawyers wanting to work with sign language interpreters?

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