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Habla Espa�ol? Mark Harris does and says it will be a key skill in his new position as vice president and general counsel of Telscape International Inc. The Atlanta-based business is a provider of local, long distance and Internet services that caters to the Hispanic market in the United States and has more than 800 employees in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. As more Atlanta-based companies serve and work in Latin America, the ability to speak Spanish (or Portuguese, in the case of Brazil) may become a valuable asset for those firms’ in-house lawyers. LANGUAGE SKILLS CRITICAL Latin culture places an “extreme value” on relationships, Harris says. “By being able to relate to the culture and the language, you can more quickly establish the relationship. With the relationship, which is first and foremost to them, you can conduct your business more efficiently and effectively.” Harris’ expects to spend 20 percent of his time traveling in Latin America. He’ll use his Spanish-language skills in dealing with regulatory agencies and Spanish-speaking employees. While several international in-house counsel at Atlanta companies agree that speaking the language and knowing the culture can be a big plus when doing business south of the border, they say it’s no substitute for good legal skills. “The easiest way to characterize it is that lawyers who have those [language] skills will be in far greater demand, all other things being equal,” says Alberto Gonzalez-Pita, general counsel of BellSouth International. But “it’s not the predominant skill set.” But Gonzalez-Pita, a Cuban native raised in Miami, acknowledges his language abilities have helped develop his practice. Gonzalez-Pita, who speaks “a fair bit” of Portuguese in addition to Spanish, says he did legal work exclusively in Latin America for 10 years before coming to BellSouth two years ago. As a partner with White & Case in Miami, he assisted Latin countries in privatizing government-owned businesses. That required him to write proposed laws, regulations and decrees in Spanish. “In the absence of that particular [language] skill, we would’ve had a lot of added expense in translating,” Gonzalez-Pita says, and he would have been less sure that what he wrote in English came out properly in Spanish. MANAGING LEGALESE John E. Parkerson Jr., a Delta Air Lines senior attorney engaged in international work, says he speaks Spanish but doesn’t feel sufficiently fluent to translate legal documents into English. Instead, Delta makes “excellent English capabilities” one of the qualifications for the airline’s local counsel in each Latin American country it serves. If he needs a document quickly translated into English, he might rely on someone in Atlanta such as Thomas L. West III, an attorney and president of Intermark Language Services Corp. Intermark concentrates on translating documents containing “heavy, heavy legalese,” West says. “Legalese is as foreign in Spanish as legalese would be in English to a lay person.” Translating legal documents into and from Spanish is a big part of West’s business and he encounters many differences in legal terminology from country to country. He has collected many of those words in “The Spanish-English Dictionary of Law & Business,” which he published in 1999. (Protea Publishing, $75.) Some companies carry out their Latin American business in English. Russell Corp., an Atlanta-based manufacturer and marketer of apparel, set up a joint venture in Brazil this year. All documents were in English and the parties agreed that disputes would be arbitrated in English, says Floyd G. Hoffman, Russell’s general counsel. “That’s more the rule than the exception,” says Hoffman, who speaks Spanish. “On the legal/business side, the commercial language throughout the world is English.” Doing legal work in Latin America presents more obstacles than language, says James L. Kacena, vice president and general counsel/development and acquisitions for Bass Hotels & Resorts Inc. Kacena’s work involves developing hotel properties. He says he sometimes must take a different approach when working in Latin countries. Because Latin societies are “much less legalistic,” he says, deals may not be documented, or risks may not be eliminated to the extent they would be in the United States. “[Y]ou come to realize you’re not going to have the same level of comfort in the documents because of different cultural paradigms.” Most in-house counsel interviewed for this article believe selecting excellent local counsel is the key to doing business in Latin America. “When you have a particular problem that requires you to travel to a country, it is essential to have local counsel accompany you,” Parkerson says. Delta chooses its local counsel by visiting each country and interviewing firms from a short list created by networking with other in-house counsel at Atlanta companies, he says. “We do an informal due diligence” with fellow international attorneys, Parkerson says. “Despite the size of Atlanta, the number of attorneys who are engaged in international practice is sufficiently small that it’s almost a club.” Even if in-house counsel is proficient in local language and culture, it’s important to have local counsel to help foster the relationship, Harris adds. Timothy S. Perry, a partner with Alston & Bird in Atlanta, believes U.S. firms also can help companies in the selection of foreign local counsel. “What outside counsel [in the U.S.] needs to be bringing to the table is selection of competent [foreign] local counsel who will give priority attention to your deal,” he says. “The only way you get priority attention is because you’re important.” Firms such as Alston & Bird have developed the relationships with foreign firms necessary to get their clients that priority service, says Perry. At least one new Atlanta attorney is finding his language skills a boon to his practice. Randolph R. Smith Jr., an associate with Holland & Knight who began practicing last fall, is fluent in Spanish and speaks Portuguese. “There is really this strong need for a Georgia attorney who’s a gringo who can hold the business conversation over the phone so you don’t have to go to Miami to get a transaction done,” he says. Smith can’t put a dollar value on his language skills, but believes they helped him land his job, gain new clients and do more of the cross-border work he enjoys. “What’s it worth? It’s worth my happiness because this is fun,” he says. As Atlanta businesses venture into Latin America, Spanish courses may become popular for attorneys and firms. “If you want to be more than just a marginal player in a particular culture or region, you have to build up cultural and language ability to distinguish yourself from competitors,” Gonzalez-Pita says. “It all comes down to competitive advantage.”

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