Attorney Americo S. Ventura had a client facing a driving while intoxicated charge in Danbury, Conn. Because the man was from Brazil and spoke only Portuguese, the state Judicial Branch was required to appoint an interpreter to let the man know what was happening with his case.
During a plea hearing, Ventura explained that a deal had been worked out for the man to plead no contest to a lesser offense of driving while impaired. The interpreter, however, mistook a few keys word in Portuguese and asked the man if he was in fact guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol.
"I interrupted," said Ventura, who jumped into the conversation and made sure the plea colloquy started over. "That's the advantage of having an attorney who speaks the same language."
In the ever-competitive world of general practice law firms, many attorneys have noticed the advantages of carving out a niche for themselves by having someone on hand who speaks another language or two -- and then advertising that fact. While Spanish-speaking lawyers are in the greatest demand, in recent years firms have begun advertising legal services for people who speak Korean and Chinese as well.
In that way Connecticut is like the rest of the country. The need for Korean-speaking lawyers was brought to the forefront recently in the massive patent lawsuit between Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics over their smartphones and tablets. Because Samsung is a South Korean company, lawyers representing Apple and the International Trade Commission brought in more than 90 contract lawyers and document reviewers to help comb through reams of Korean documents.
That sort of ad hoc approach is how many Connecticut law firms have dealt with the occasional need to translate legal documents or provide interpreters for non-English-speaking clients. Barry Hawkins, who is president of the Connecticut Bar Association and a real estate and litigation partner at Shipman & Goodwin, said he often sees internal emails from Shipman lawyers looking for someone who speaks one language or another.
"We're lucky," he said. Of the 140 people in the firm's Hartford office, about 30 of them have enough skill in another language "to pitch hit," Hawkins said. "Of course, that's quite different from doing formal legal translations. For those instances, we use outside services."
Smaller law firms also sometimes enlist temporary help by sending emails to colleagues in the profession. But with their limited resources, these firms can't afford to constantly pay to bring in paid temps or to outsource work. The alternative is to hire multilingual attorneys and staffers.
Consider attorney Deron Freeman, who has a criminal defense and personal injury practice in Hartford. He does not speak Spanish himself, but three members of his office staff do, and he makes a point of advertising his services to the Spanish community. "It was a concerted effort," he said. "I have a huge Spanish-speaking clientele and I think there's a growing demand."
Other law firms have used family heritage and their own second-language skills from their immigrant backgrounds to attract and keep business. At Podorowsky, Thompson & Baron, in New Britain, Conn., callers are told "for English, press one. For Polish, press two."