How does a diverse population and profession affect our ability as lawyers to settle files, facilitate the purchase of homes, and help businesses grow?

It turns out that a number of claims have arisen in recent years where either lawyers have made bad assumptions about their racialized clients, or where racialized lawyers have been taken advantage of on account of their cultural, ethnic, and/or religious backgrounds.

I am reminded of a case I worked on some time ago. My clients, a woman and her husband, were injured in a car accident. The woman took the brunt of it, while her husband escaped with minor injuries. We attended a mediation. The day had gone well. By the end of the day we had reached a number I could recommend. Up to that point the husband spoke on behalf of the couple.  When I turned to the wife and asked specifically for her instructions to settle, she said yes. I was struck, however, that she cried at the same time she said so. Her whole body shook. The incongruity between what she said and how she reacted is etched into my memory. Sometimes taking instructions isn’t taking instructions.

Client interviewee waiting nervous

I took her into another room where we sat and talked for what seemed like a long time. She explained to me that in her culture her husband made all the decisions. But the car accident and this decision would affect her life forever. She could not settle at the number and she only said yes because her husband wanted to end the litigation.

We did not settle that day. Down the road we resolved the matter for both wife and husband in a way satisfactory to both. The lesson – to work with a rich understanding of our clients’ cultural backgrounds – has stuck with me since.

Click here to read Lorne Shelson’s article in the September 2014 issue for more stories on how claims can arise where cultural diversity is an issue.

In what ways have you dealt with the challenges of a diverse bar and clientele? Feel free to share.