The Transformative Potential of Attorney Bilingualism

In contemporary U.S. law practice, attorney bilingualism is increasingly valued, primarily because it allows lawyers to work more efficiently and to pursue a broader range of professional opportunities. This purely functionalist conceptualization of attorney bilingualism, however, ignores the surprising ways in which multilingualism can enhance a lawyer’s professional work and can strengthen and reshape relationships among actors in the U.S. legal milieu. Drawing upon research from psychology, linguistics, and other disciplines, this Article advances a theory of the transformative potential of attorney bilingualism. Looking first to the development of lawyers themselves, the Article posits that attorneys who operate bilingually may, over time, enjoy cognitive advantages such as enhanced creative thinking and problem-solving abilities, a more analytical orientation to language, and greater communicative sensitivity. Moreover, the existence of lawyers who are fully immersed in the bilingual practice of law will transform and invigorate interactions between attorneys and limited English proficient (LEP) clients and, more broadly, among attorneys, the parties to a proceeding, and legal decision makers. Although many U.S. lawyers possess non-English language ability, few are equipped with the complement of knowledge, skills, and values needed to utilize that language ability effectively in a professional setting. Therefore, the Article also calls upon the legal profession to adopt a more rigorous approach to bilingual training and instruction and outlines a set of competencies that underlie effective bilingual lawyering. These competencies relate broadly to cross-cultural interactions, knowledge of foreign legal systems, specialized and versatile language ability, and verbal and nonverbal communication skills.