Week 5: Practicing Law in the U.S.: Lessons to Learn in a Foreign Jurisdiction
By Elizabeth Pietanza
When I think about the practical aspects of my time in Chile, my work schedule and lifestyle are generally the same as in the U.S. I live in a great neighborhood right in Santiago, which is a cosmopolitan city offering myriad options for cultural and nightlife activities. My non-weekend schedule involves taking the metro to the office where I start work by 9am, and leaving around 6.30 or 7pm to go to the gym. The key difference about working in Chile is that I take at least a full hour lunch break, which does not involve eating a sandwich in front of a computer screen, but rather heading out with colleagues to sit and relax. I go to lunch with a group of lawyers who truly value their time to relax and follow a strict lunch regulation: any discussions regarding work are forbidden! Also, this “event” is not reserved for special occasions only, but occurs everyday.
In addition to developing research, writing and other lawyering skills, I spend most of the day speaking Spanish, even though the work I do is primarily for English-speaking clients and the attorneys here speak English fluently. Speaking Spanish (or at least trying!) has helped me to quickly gain the trust and confidence of my co-workers, which is proving to be invaluable to my professional and social acceptance at the office. Even though I realize that most international negotiations take place in English and there is no “requirement” for a U.S. attorney to speak a foreign language, the skill is very important. For example, at the first day of the ABA Seminar I attended in Santiago (see entry from week #3), I observed some Chilean attorneys who were disturbed that little or no efforts were made to speak Spanish or to find people from the U.S. to present in Spanish. They did not expect the entire seminar to be in Spanish, but would have appreciated more effort to display some linguistic cultural sensitivity. They were frustrated because they felt it would be difficult to establish trust and a long-term professional contact with a lawyer who made no efforts in the local language.
Why should anyone care about needing to establish trust if they do not want to pursue an international practice? At the same ABA Conference, several U.S. environmental lawyers were present. These lawyers assumed that they would never practice internationally because they focused on domestic environmental issues. However, environmental issues are now being tied to trade, as are intellectual property, labor and alternative dispute resolution, to name a few. With globalization, an increased bipartisan focus on trade and pending trade agreements, it is very likely that many lawyers in various practice areas will encounter international issues in their careers.
We know that if we are to gain the trust and confidence of our clients and colleagues, we need to reach out and make efforts for them to feel comfortable. With so many international developments in legal practice, language skills, even if only out of diplomacy, and cultural training are becoming ever more important to the practice of law in the U.S. Whether we are negotiating with attorneys to do research for us in a foreign jurisdiction, or selling services in the U.S. to foreign clients, as professionals we can only benefit from a greater awareness of cultural and linguistic factors. Empowered with these diplomatic skills, we can more easily maintain the trust and confidence of those with whom we will work in the future, and more readily adapt our practice to a changing world.
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