Cross-cultural competence is critical for lawyers to be able to listen, understand, and respond with empathy in communicating with our clients, our colleagues, and our communities. Cross-cultural competence means we are aware of our own cultural assumptions and are more sensitive to the cultural differences that may exist with others. To be effective advocates, we must seek to create bridges of understanding with people who have a different ethnicity, religion, culture, nationality, political view, gender, or other backgrounds. How can we develop these critical interpersonal and professional skills and attributes? Professor Michalyn Steele provides the following tips:
- Ask non-stereotyping questions. For example, “Tell me about yourself” demonstrates consciousness and empathy to let the speaker set whatever definitions they want.
- Be aware that when we talk about culture, we cast a broad net. Ethnicity is just a small part of culture; there are also differences in religion, sexual orientation, geographical area, and more.
- No one wants to be perceived as a label; individuals want to be perceived in their full humanity. Each person has multiple characteristics, and we need to allow people to be their full selves.
- If we are not sensitive to cultural differences, we can unknowingly cause offense or foster miscommunication that can undermine our efforts as effective advocates.
- Pay attention to the ways in which culture—in regard to the educated and uneducated, the rich and poor—can order social influence. As a lawyer, you will often hold more social power than others in the room. Be sensitive about the way you empower or disempower others, especially clients.
Michalyn Steele became an associate professor of law in 2014 following two years as a fellow and a semester as a distinguished practitioner-in-residence at BYU Law. She teaches Federal Indian Law, Structures of the Constitution, and Civil Rights. Prior to joining BYU Law, she worked as an attorney in Washington, DC in government and private practice.