Cultural Competency Is Good Business for Lawyers and the Profession

Young woman looking at map

The recent articles by Naoko Inoue Shatz and Qing Qing Miao from the December 2014/January 2015 issue of NWLawyer served as a good reminder that cultural competence is about more than race and country of origin. Both articles talked about cultural issues in doing business with Japan and China, but they also stressed the importance for lawyers to be sensitive to the many facets of society, business, and opportunity that shape culture. As Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters stressed in their work, “Culture is the summation of an individual’s ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, age, economic status, social status, language, sexual orientation, physical attributes, marital status, and a variety of other characteristics.”  Sue Bryant & Jean Koh Peters, Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering, in Race, Culture, Psychology And The Law 47, 47 (Kimberly Holt Barrett &William H. George eds., 2005).

The economic and societal reality is that over the next 20 years, the United States will move from being majority white (64 percent in 2010 U.S. Census Bureau) to a projected plurality minority population by 2050 (estimated at around 46 percent white). While white/non-Hispanics will remain the largest discrete ethnic group, they will cease to be the majority.

A global economy is also increasing our need to be culturally fluent because the integration of information sharing and exchange, capital, and the growth of free trade have already pushed many businesses into the multicultural arena. Lawyering is behind in this respect, even though the largest global firms have more lawyers located outside their home-country office than in their home country. This trend has also been mirrored in the number of foreign attorneys seeking a license to practice in Washington state.

Ms. Shatz’s and Ms. Miao’s perspectives come from business and immigration law, but also apply to good trial advocacy. As a trial lawyer, I find it impossible to tell my client’s story without understanding their culture. In fact, it was vital to Ms. Miao and me when we tried a three-week case in August that revolved around three businessmen from China in a dispute about ownership and control of a business.  Our success at trial would have been impossible without understanding why our clients and the opposing parties understood the case the way they did.

Ultimately, success in practice is the best indicator of a good business. While the data has only been collected for a little less than a decade, and is not consistent across demographic groups, it does demonstrate a strong correlation between multicultural competency and business growth in business and law practice. Lawyers and firms with strong multicultural competency indicators outpace the average rate of growth each year the data has been tracked — in some years by double digits. This means that the firms are doing better than average in business growth than the firms who are not engaged actively in cultural competency efforts. It should also be no surprise that these firms have the highest percentages of minority attorneys and staff.

Although the statistical evidence is new, and developing, it is reinforcing the idea that cultural competence is not just good policy — it is good business and good for the profession.