U.S. corporations continue to expand their footprints globally, transacting business in or affecting previously untapped multicultural markets. Increasingly, these corporations are using the talents of attorneys who speak the language and understand the culture of these markets. It is a trend that Martha Fay Africa has watched over her 22 years in the legal recruitment field.
"Over the course of time, there has been a tremendous increase in the requests we have had-only secondary to globalization," says Africa, co-founder and managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa, LLC, a national legal search firm specializing in the recruitment of attorneys for law firms and corporate legal departments.
"We started seeing that in the mid-'80s. It was very unique at the time," says Africa. While the recession of the 1990s temporarily slowed the trend, Africa adds: "Now it is just not stopping and most of the positions that we handle outside of the U.S. do require fluency in a language other than English." Increasingly, she finds corporate legal departments are interested in attorneys who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, or Japanese, in particular.
Karen Anderson, co-founder and president of Vintage Legal LLC, an attorney recruitment firm in New York City, has also noticed the demand and views it as largely market-driven. "If the financial sector is growing in China, they will definitely want a Chinese-speaking lawyer," says Anderson. "Over the past five years, I have seen it growing particularly in the Spanish market. The financial sector, in particular, and with regard to wealth management; they are starting to see growth in that area."
Both Africa and Anderson note that while in their experience, linguistic skill is an asset valued in attorneys across all levels of responsibility, it is more likely to be required of mid-level attorneys. Typically, with the exception of those who oversee a Latin American or Asian focused unit of the company, general counsel are less likely to need additional language skills than those attorneys with direct responsibility for negotiating the contracts or direct communications "on the ground."
Naturally Increasing Diversity
Many global corporations are tapping into not only the language skills but also the cultural competence and understanding of bilingual attorneys. Typically, it is the native speaker who offers this added benefit.
"When they say 'native fluency,' they are also talking idiomatic discussion to understand the nuances. The assumption is that someone for whom it is their first tongue or at most their second language has that as well," says Africa. "When clients stipulate native [Spanish or Portuguese] fluency, we know that those with native fluency are likely to be Hispanic or Brazilian. When it is one of the Asian languages, the people most likely to have native fluency are Asian."
Therefore, the demand for native fluency impacts the effort to continue to add to the diversity of corporate legal departments. "It increases the diversity just naturally in an organization," says Anderson, who recently placed three native Spanish-speaking attorneys in a media company. "It is a great trend all around."
The demand for native fluency and the attendant cultural awareness can also spell opportunity for bilingual or multilingual minority attorneys who are veterans of the legal department. Four-and-a-half years ago, Maria Fernandez, IBM's senior regional counsel for Latin America, seized such an opportunity.
"I don't think I would have been considered for this position if I had not spoken Spanish," says Fernandez, who has worked at IBM since graduating from law school nearly 14 years ago. "It made it faster for me to communicate with the local team. It's sort of a bonding; it helps the relationship. Being both Latina and being willing to speak to your clients in their language shows a certain respect for their culture and a willingness to learn about their business practices."
With responsibility for all legal issues that arise in Latin America, Fernandez is now based in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Frequently attending business meetings where English, Spanish, and Portuguese are spoken interchangeably, she appreciates the lessons learned while growing up in the Bronx in New York City.
"I grew up speaking both [Spanish and English] in the house. When I got to high school, I wanted to take French but my mother said, 'You don't speak Spanish properly,'" Fernandez recalls. Consequently, she took Spanish courses in high school and in college. To this day, she finds that her education is continuing. "Throughout the time I've spent in Latin America, my Spanish has become much better," Fernandez assesses, noting that she "didn't learn how to talk about breach of contract at the dinner table."
Fernandez supervises a team of 18 lawyers spread throughout 11 countries, all of whom are native to the countries in which they are stationed and speak two languages at a minimum. About a third speak Spanish and English, the next third speak Portuguese, and the final third speak all three. While Fernandez could read Portuguese prior to her arrival in Brazil, she and her husband are currently taking a course in Portuguese, a benefit IBM offers all of its attorneys stationed in foreign countries.
Fernandez notes that when she assumed her position of leadership, she was less senior than those attorneys who previously held the position. However, being Latina shortened the learning curve and closed the gap in experience.
"I think it makes it a little bit easier that I am a Latina so to a certain extent I understand their culture, their music. It makes the transition faster, but anyone can do it if they show appreciation for the people, the culture, and who they are," Fernandez points out, further noting that her predecessor, a non-Hispanic, had himself learned the culture, made efforts to discern what was appropriate, and earned universal respect and admiration as a result. Fernandez also predicts that the future is bright for bilingual attorneys at her company. "I really think that with some of the growth we expect to see in Brazil, India, China, and Russia, you will see a huge demand for bilingual attorneys," says Fernandez.
A Natural Asset
While he had not fully anticipated the edge his bicultural upbringing would prove when hefirst graduated law school, opportunities requiring language skill and cultural knowledge gravitated toward Ricardo Núñez, The Home Depot's vice president legal, business operations. Based in Atlanta, he supports the company's international and domestic business operations and merchandising, including Mexico and Canada retail, as well as global sourcing operations.
In a previous position with another company, the combination of his Spanish fluency and his "working knowledge" of French garnered him a plum assignment in Paris.
"It began with the general counsel's request that I read a few contracts in Spanish, then when I got to Paris and finished, I was asked if I could review some in French, and it turned into a four-and-a-half month assignment. It was because of language skills that I was called upon for that assignment," says Núñez.
Born in Miami, Núñez was raised by Cuban parents and spoke Spanish in the home. He credits his ability to maintain his fluency to his upbringing as well as his career, which has included Latin-American and globally-focused positions, among others.
"My parents thought knowledge of any sort was important; it was a differentiator and that language was one of those elements of knowledge," says Núñez. "They hired tutors to teach me how to write and read it. As a result of the tutoring, my brothers and I were able to become fluent. It's one thing to learn household vocabulary such as, 'Pick up your clothes' or 'What would you like for dinner.' To become fluent, however, you need formal training. Much in the same way that one takes English lessons to expand vocabulary and learn grammar, Spanish lessons are critical to developing fluency. Legal terms and industry-specific terms you usually learn on the job."
Anderson, a native Spanish speaker herself who worked in a Latin American practice prior to entering the legal recruitment field, personally tests the language proficiency of the Spanish-speaking candidates she presents to her clients. She suggests that even native speakers should maintain their proficiency by taking night classes or join a language-specific reading group, especially if they have not used the language in a business context. Núñez cautions that in some workplaces, the native speaker may face being pigeonholed into a particular role. To guard against that eventuality, he has made it a practice of viewing his cultural knowledge as indicative of his ability to appreciate different cultures in general.
"I think it is recognized as an asset. The broader your skill set the better. You don't have to understand a second language or culture, but it can help. It is another skill that is recognized and highly valued at The Home Depot," says Núñez. "And I think it will be increasingly helpful, not only as The Home Depot continues to expand internationally, but as our communities become more diverse."
Likewise, Sangita Patel, an attorney in the legal department of Chevron in San Ramon, Calif., has found the global reach of her company has called upon her language skills. "Given the international scope of my practice discipline, coupled with the reach of Chevron's global operations, being multilingual has been helpful in communicating with personnel where perhaps English is a second language. It also helps with recognizing potential substantive changes to a communication that may result from translation of a written communication," says Patel.
Born in Mombasa, Kenya, Patel speaks fluent Gujarati, Hindi, and English. She is also conversant in French and Italian. In fulfilling her responsibilities at Chevron, which include international trade, customs, and international business law, among other areas, Patel has used her native Gujarati as well as Hindi and some French. She has found knowledge of these languages helpful in her interactions with bilingual or multilingual business-side employees at Chevron.
"Knowing the language tends to personalize the conversation; it helps employees connect with you and tends to bring a certain level of comfort in their dealings with you," says Patel. She has found that the cultural knowledge that is part and parcel of being a native speaker like herself fits within Chevron's more general philosophy of inclusion.
"One of Chevron's core values is learning from and respecting the cultures in which we work. We value and demonstrate respect for the uniqueness of individuals and the varied perspectives and talents they provide," says Patel.
More and more, corporate legal departments seek and benefit from the valuable perspectives and talents that bilingual and multilingual attorneys offer in today's competitive market. When legal departments do so, increased diversity and opportunity for minority attorneys are not far behind.
Jennifer Borum Bechet is a freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.
From the May/June 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®