Foreign Language Translators & Interpreters, and Competent Representation of Non-English-Speaking Clients

Earlier we’ve blogged about the ethical challenges for bilingual attorneys who attempt to provide translation and interpretation services to their foreign-born clients. Numerous ethical questions may arise in the opposite situation as well, when an English-speaking attorney, who doesn’t speak the client’s language, represents a non-English-speaking client.

It goes without saying that an attorney has an ethical duty to provide competent and zealous representation, preserve client confidences and avoid unlawful discrimination. However, when the attorney is unable to communicate directly with a foreign client, the question is whether or not he can satisfy this ethical obligation.

According to one ethics opinion, issued by New York, a lawyer who undertakes to represent a client with whom effective direct lawyer-client communication can only be maintained through an interpreter must consider the need for foreign language interpretation services.

The opinion goes on to state that although the mode of communication is to be decided by the lawyer and client, once a lawyer agrees to represent a foreign language speaking client, the need for a translator – for all forms of communication – cannot be ignored.

If an attorney fails to secure a foreign language interpreter, he may be found to have breached his ethical duty for competent representation and subject himself to a malpractice suit.

See Formal Opinion 1995-12. Committee of Professional and Judicial Ethics. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

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