Living and working in a diverse culture has its challenges.  It gives us ample opportunity to work, interact, and live with people who speak very little English or none at all.  This presents many challenges for mediators trying to communicate effectively with non-English speaking clients during mediation.

The 2010 U.S. Census data revealed that 27.8% of the population in California is Hispanic.  Texas and Florida also have large Hispanic populations of 18.7% and 8.4% respectively.[1]  Additionally, the Asian population grew faster than any other racial group between 2000 and 2010.[2]  This melting pot means that there are entire communities across the country that speak only Spanish, Russian, Korean, or Mandarin.  These communities are part of our wonderfully diverse culture and use the legal system expecting fair results; however, fair results may be more difficult to obtain when the parties to a lawsuit speak little or no English.

In 2009, Dallas lawyer Angel Reyes and two professors from Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business published a study in Social Science Quarterly which found that Spanish speakers who relied on a translator during court testimony were 15% less likely to obtain a jury verdict that exceeded their last settlement offer than were English speakers. [3]  The ABA article announcing the results of the study outlined that the authors of the study believed that lower civil awards were a result of juror bias, rather than a misunderstanding of the plaintiff’s testimony, as translators were found to be consistently accurate.  While the study only looked at Spanish-speaking plaintiffs and it is unclear whether the results would translate to other non-English speakers, the implications are clear:  bias exists when language is a barrier to understanding.

If a jury can be biased when listening to a plaintiff’s translated testimony, why wouldn’t a mediator be equally biased when mediating a case with a non-English speaker?  Mediators are only human.  We have biases and prejudices, despite our mandate to be “neutral.”  The importance of this realization is that we must be self-aware enough to understand and adjust our own bias when we are mediating.

This is especially important when a client’s lawyer is acting as their translator.  Our language barrier bias prevents the client from being heard in the same way we would hear a native language-speaker.  This bias could prevent us from engaging with the client, failing to fully examine their positions and underlying interests.  This is dangerous because the failure to communicate leads to conflict.  This creates distrust between the client and their lawyer, the client and the mediator, the mediator and the lawyer, and even more disturbing is the possibility of creating distrust between the client and the legal system itself.

Mediators use nuanced communication to help clients make decisions in a mediation, so what happens if the communication happens through a translator?  What happens if the translator is the client’s lawyer instead of a court-certified translator?

Lawyers who act as their client’s translator may be saving money, but a lawyer must be careful to represent their client’s underlying interests and translate everything effectively or they may be selling the mediation process short.  Attorneys who pick and choose what to translate during mediation may be good advocates, but are not serving the best interests of their clients.  They are controlling the mediation process rather than letting the mediator guide the participants in a way that facilitates resolution.  Mediators are good at their jobs because they have a “bird’s eye view” of the conflict.  If one party blinds that view because of language barriers, how can they be effective?

Attorneys translating for their clients must also remember that the mediation process is educational for their clients.  A good process must allow for give and take between all participants, allowing the client to ask hard “what-if” questions and allowing lawyers to educate their clients about their case.  Most importantly, it allows the client to feel like they’ve been heard.  A lawyer who fails to use mediation for these purposes may end up trying a difficult case that their client might have been willing to settle had they had a voice during mediation.

A mediator must have the ability to recognize language barriers early on and develop a method of dealing with them.  Some mediators ask the participants to bring a court-certified translator to the mediation.  Other mediators ask the parties to provide a translator of their own choosing, even if it’s the lawyer’s paralegal or the client’s relative.  Once in a while, mediators will recuse themselves in favor of a mediator who speaks the client’s native language.  Sometimes a mediator has no choice but to mediate the case with the client’s lawyer acting as translator.  In these cases, it is essential that the mediator have a private conversation with that lawyer-translator prior to the mediation, outlining their expectations and rules regarding the translation and why they are important.  If a lawyer-translator fails to follow those rules during the mediation, don’t be afraid to stop the mediation to have another private conversation with the lawyer-translator on the importance of client engagement.

Another important element of mediation with non-English speaking participants is the idea of “status.”  Status refers to both the power balance and to the self-worth of the participants.  A person who is ignored or shoved aside and who can’t understand what is going on in a mediation may feel less respected and may feel like they have lower importance or “status.”  Awarding higher “status” to only the active participants in a mediation or to only the participants who can speak your native language is a common pitfall all mediators face.  It takes a great deal of skill, patience and — yep, I’m going to say it — chutzpah to communicate with a plaintiff or defendant who don’t speak your language and whose only source of translation is their lawyer — especially when their lawyer is not willing to act as a word-for-word translator. 

For example, I recently held a mediation with an elderly plaintiff we’ll call Miguel who spoke only Spanish.  Miguel’s lawyer was clearly frustrated even before entering the mediation room.  The lawyer used the fact that his client didn’t speak English to shape the mediation into a format with which the lawyer was most comfortable.  The attorney dominated the mediation, shutting down his client’s questions and translating only as much as was absolutely necessary to move discussions along.  This was not a recipe for settlement; it was a recipe for disaster, miscommunication, and missed opportunities. 

Miguel was clearly frustrated, but because of the lawyer’s higher “status,” the client acquiesced and sat quietly, trying to discern what the lawyer was saying to me in English while only getting snippets translated.  When I told the lawyer I’d be more effective if he translated everything we discussed, he refused.  He wanted to cut to the chase and see if defense brought any money.  He clearly didn’t want to waste any time on this mediation if he and his client were not going to benefit.  I understand that attitude, especially in the Los Angeles Superior Court system where parties feel that they’re often “ordered” into mediation rather than the process being voluntary; however, a lawyer’s failure to give status to one’s own client in the mediation process could be the very thing that leads to impasse later on because of a breakdown of trust between attorney and client.

On the flipside, I had another mediation a few months ago with a lawyer who was very careful to translate everything that was going on in the mediation. The lawyer took the time to answer the client’s questions and concerns, translating their client’s comments to me so I could help them through the process.  That mediation was very successful and took very little time to reach resolution because all the participants had equal “status” in the room.  The clients felt listened to and heard; they felt respected and vindicated.

When an attorney fails to accurately or completely translate during a mediation, the client can leave the mediation feeling cheated, distrustful of their attorney and the process, and even more frustrated than they were before coming to the mediation.  While an attorney may save a chunk of money by not having a professional translator present, he opens himself up to other issues later on if he’s not careful.  Mediation is a process designed for clients to save money, time, and emotional energy.  It is a lawyer’s job to advise their clients through the process but ultimately the clients are the ones that must make the final decision. If a client can’t understand what’s going on in the process, no decision can be made. It is both the lawyer’s and mediator’s responsibility to ensure that their clients understand what is being said so they can make those decisions. 

By Terri Lubaroff

[1] Sharon R. Ennis, Merarys Rios-Vargas and Nora G. Albert, 2010 U.S. Census Briefs, The Hispanic Population (May 2011).
[2] Karen R. Humes, Nicholas A. Jones, and  Roberto R. Ramirez, 2010 U.S. Census Briefs, Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010, (March 2011).
[3] Margaret Littman, Lost in Translation, ABA Journal (Jan 1, 2009) also available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/lost_in_translation/.

Terri Lubaroff, Esq. is a conflict resolution specialist, having honed her skills first as a film and television producer and later as a full-time mediator and arbitrator. She specializes in Entertainment, New Media, Employment, Consumer Torts and Business Disputes, and is adept at dealing with difficult personalities. She is a member of the Florida Bar and is a full-time neutral in Southern California with Agency for Dispute Resolution.