A culture is a collection of values, customs and ways of looking at the world, which is shared by a group of people. A culture can be based i. a. on ethnic or racial origin, gender, age, local or geographical factor, religion, nationality or immigrant status, disability, sexual orientation, income, education, occupation. Every culture has the right to respect on its own terms and without the use of stereotypes. A lawyer can only be effective if s/he understands cultural differences and knows how to recognize them and deal with them.
If you ignore differences between cultures - or if you think about people using cultural stereotypes - you will alienate yourself from clients, witnesses, colleagues and judges. You will also deprive yourself of significant amount of information because different cultures communicate in different ways. Working with clients of various backgrounds is a specific skill - actually a set of skills.
There are a few areas where cultural differences have a significant impact on the work of a lawyer.
#1 Perception of incidents
A police car is chasing another car. The police sirene howls and you can see the flashing blue lights. In the end, both cars stop at the side of the road. The policeman exits the police car and goes towards the other car. He is going to issue a ticket. He thinks he is just doing his job. At least some of the expectations of the police officer may result from the organizational culture prevailing in the police. If the driver comes from a culture that has no troublesome history with the police, he only expects unpleasant experience of getting a ticket. However, the driver will perceive the incident quite differently if he comes from a culture in which contact with the police sometimes creates a risk. Every driver can be surprised by what happens when a policeman reaches the car and starts a conversation. However, cultural norms and expectations will significantly affect what these people will say and how they will remember the incident later.
# 2 Perception of conflict
In a pan-European culture, conflict is considered socially acceptable, and even socially useful. This does not mean that each person has a conflict. Many people avoid conflict if they only can. But conflict is not considered a disgrace - one can complain when something goes wrong. The law solves disputes through legal procedures.
In some countries, conflict is considered embarrassing - anyone who participates in an open and public conflict is in a shameful situation. People in such cultures just prefer to suffer a loss than to officially complain about the person who caused this loss, especially when the person has a higher status or a certain power.
The world is obviously not divided into cultures that tolerate conflict and cultures that do not tolerate conflict. There is a wide range of cultural attitudes towards conflict, ranging from cultures that honor conflict (such as most of the European cultures) to those that do not tolerate it, with many cultures somewhere in between. In some cultures, some types of conflict are acceptable, while others are not.
If a lawyer advises a client whose cultural assumptions about the conflict are different from the lawyer’s assumptions, if s/he does not take cultural differences into account, s/he can propose a strategy that is completely unsuitable for the client. And if the lawyer conducts confrontational negotiations against someone who sees the conflict as a shame, this attitute can completely prevent any agreement.
#3 The value of the hierarchy
Participatory relations between lawyers and their clients reduce the hierarchy, although they do not eliminate it. Participatory relations are not always natural in cultures in which authorities are perceived in a way that most European nations are no longer used to. A lawyer may have difficulties in establishing a partner relationship with a client from a culture in which the hierarchy is valued. The client can see the lawyer as an authority to be respected and treat the partnership as something unnatural.
#4 The importance of formalism
Polish society, especially its younger part, is rather informal according to world standards. In business situations, we quickly start to call each other by first name. In some cultures this can be treated as a sign of disrespect for a person who is called by first name. In these cultures, informality may mean taking the person or the subject that is being discussed not seriously.
# 5 The importance of personal relationships
There are cultures in which two businessmen make a deal simply because each of them expects to earn money. Nothing else really matters. If after the accountings each party is convinced of the profit, the case goes to the lawyer to prepare the contract. This is how it looks like, for example, in the United States, where a very long contract is drawn up, which is to regulate the behavior of the parties in every detail.
In other cultures, businessmen spend a lot of time getting to know each other as people before they even mention the possibility of concluding a contract. Everyone will want to be sure that s/he can trust the other. If they agree on the transaction, the contract itself will be rather short. After signing it, they put it in a drawer and never return to it. This is typical of Latin America and many parts of Asia, where the relationship is the essence of the contract, and subsequent problems are solved thanks to the relationship that would be violated if it was necessary to rely on the contract.
These kinds of cultural differences have obvious consequences for international business transactions. But it is also important in everyday legal practice. A person from a culture, in which personal relationships are highly valued may experience another culture to be cold and impersonal. If such a person is a client or opponent in the case you are working on, this is an important factor.
# 6 Expressing feelings
In some cultures, talking about feelings related to personal matters is only allowed in the privacy of the home, in the circle of family or longtime friends. The client may suffer emotionally, even if s/he does not speak about it for cultural reasons. S/he may also feel uncomfortable if you try to express your empathy openly: in some cultures empathy means rather subtle changes in the voice tone or facial expression than words.
#7 Words and context
In most European cultures, a relatively large part of the message is expressed in words. In some other cultures, talking about everything is considered rude. The words are then chosen carefully to suggest information that is not clearly spoken. When a person from such a culture comes into contact with a person from one of the European cultures, the potential for misunderstanding is high. For example, a person from a European culture may not hear the other person's implications and may be impatient, mistakenly assuming that the other person is not communicative.
The difference constists in the meaning of the context in a given culture. A low-context culture (such as most European cultures or North American cultures) communicates primarily through words. Consequently, the meaning of the context in which words are spoken is small. In low-context culture, information that has not been spoken is probably not conceived. High-context culture communicates less through words and more implicating contextual meaning. In high-context culture, what has not been said can be just as significant or even more significant than what is being said.
There is a paradox for a lawyer here, because s/he needs to communicate some issues in negotiations, not to talk direclty with words about them. If the laywer says things in words, his or her opponent will use them against the lawyer. If the laywer implies things, or allows the context to imply things, his or her opponent will receive information, but not in a form that can be used against the lawyer. The lawyer needs to learn this skill for the purpose of negotiations.
#8 Body language
There are many situations in which a body language that seems natural in one culture can transmit inappropriate information in a different culture. An example is looking in the eye. In some cultures, the not looking into the eyes of another person when talking, shows disrespect. In other cultures, the opposite is true: the looking in the eyes of the other person means showing disrespect. In still others, looking in the eyes of another person during the conversation is optional: one can do it or not without affecting respect.
#9 Individual and group
In most cultures in the United States, individuals are expected to make their own decisions based on what is best for them. In Asian cultures, the individual will rather decide based on what is best for the group - for example, family or community. In other cultures, the group achieves a consensus and decides about an individual, usually based on the needs of the group. While advising a client from a culture where group needs or group decisions take precedence over individual needs or individual decision making, the lawyer can only be helpful to the client if s/he takes this into account.
In the multicultural lawyering, it is worth taking care of issues related to multiculturalism for three reasons:
First of all, if the lawyer really focuses on the client, s/he should be able to respect the cultural, racial, ethnic and gender differences that exist between the lawyer and the client. This means that the lawyer recognizes differences and adapts to them, instead of assuming that the client will adapt to the lawyer. For example, the lawyer learns to listen to the meaning that can be implicit in a client's culture, even if in the lawyer’s culture it would be bluntly expressed.
Secondly, for the sake of self-interest. A very large part of professional success of a lawyer results from the recommendation of satisfied customers, and customers whose cultural otherness is honestly respected will be much more likely to recommend the lawyer’s services.
Thirdly, the world is a more interesting place when we are open to cultural differences and how people from other environments live and perceive their surroundings.
Stefan Krieger, Richard Neumann, Essential Lawyering Skills, Wolters Kluwer 2015.
Carwina Weng, Multicultural Lawyering: Teaching Psychology to Develop Cultural Self-Awareness, ClinicaI Law Review 1/2005, 369-398.
Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Anchor 1969.