Investing in cross-cultural education would not only make the legal profession more inclusive—it would make lawyers more effective.
In 2020, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse in the country. A recent study conducted by the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) found that only 6.6% of equity partners at law firms are racial minorities, less than 3% are LGBTQ+, and only around 0.5% have a reported disability. And even with a 2.8% increase over the past decade, according to the American Bar Association 2019 survey data, 85% of practicing lawyers are still white.
While law firms struggle to meet ideal diversity standards, the country’s population (including potential law firm clients) continues to become more demographically diverse, attracting people from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. There are over 350 languages spoken in the US, with over 13% of US citizens born outside of the country. By 2055, the US population is projected to move from 60% white to 48% white.
Given this disparity, one might expect stakeholders in the legal field to place a greater emphasis on intercultural competence education, or learning that cultivates behaviors, attitudes, and practices that enable people to effectively work across cultures. And given the nature of legal work and the relationship between lawyer and client, it’s almost surprising that it has yet to be implemented in widespread ways.
Interestingly, the medical profession—another industry that relies on trust and understanding to deliver competent care—has been taking tangible steps towards better cultural education among medical students. In 1998, the US Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with other government organizations developed PRIME: Promoting, Reinforcing, and Improving Medical Education. They released the program to seven medical schools across the US to create a more effective cultural competency training plan. And in 2000, the Liaison Committee On Medical Education (LCME) announced that faculty and students need to demonstrate an awareness and understanding of cultural diversity in order to graduate from medical school.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), a nonprofit medical education and research organization, acknowledged that the LCME’s announcement in 2000 helped give “an added impetus and emphasis to medical schools to introduce education in cultural competence into the undergraduate medical curriculum.” To continue progress, AAMC released a comprehensive guide to cultural competence education training in 2005, which outlined a succinct plan to build a sound cross-cultural competency training infrastructure at all medical schools. Ten years later, Brown University’s medical school found that cross-culturally competent doctors see significantly better health outcomes when physicians have a greater understanding of their patients’ cultural backgrounds.
With significant results supporting the need for cross-cultural competence, law professionals are catching on to the dire need for this widespread change. Law Professor Susan Bryant of CUNY School of Law says in her study The Five Habits: Building Cross-Cultural Competence in Lawyers:
“As our profession becomes increasingly diverse, the tensions created by difference offer great potential for creative change. These same tensions, however, could result in negative judgments and misunderstanding. By teaching students how to recognize the influence of culture in their work and to understand, if not accept, the viewpoint of others, we provide students with skills that are necessary to communicate and work positively with future clients and colleagues.”
Bryant points out that intercultural competency training should begin when students are still in school—not already in the workforce—and that the effects of this training reach far beyond graduation: more successful relationships with their diverse client base, a healthier workplace, and a more effective lawyer.
But how exactly does cross-cultural education in law school make lawyers more effective?
According to Bonny L. Tavares, Temple University law professor, students with cross-cultural education can not only better interact with clients of different cultural heritage, but they can also examine problems more effectively. Moreover, they can recognize the flaws in one-sided arguments, and become better advocates with stronger, more compelling points.
While these professors urge law schools to strengthen their curriculum, there is still yet to be a national requirement for cultural competency in order to graduate from law school. But perhaps with the growing emphasis on the importance of cross-cultural competence, law professionals can take nation-wide steps to prepare future lawyers for our ever-diversifying country.