Intercultural Communication, Cultural Knowledge and Self-Awareness

Several of the sessions at the recent AALS clinical conference in Tucson raised issues that involve what many call cultural competence. (EXCELLENT CONFERENCE, by the way). All agreed that these issues are very difficult to address. I have an article coming out in the Wash. U. Journal of Law and Policy this fall that grows out of the many years we have tried to teach about these issues at the University of New Mexico. Because our faculty, student body and client base in the clinic is so diverse, our differences become very obvious. Influenced by the MacCrate Report, Carnegie and Best Practices, I tried to articulate learning objectives that address cultural issues. I broke them up along the lines of MacCrate’s vision of skills, knowledge and values. In the article, I use the term “culture “, not in the anthropological sense, but more in the sense of differences between individuals that are related to different backgrounds, value systems, religions, classes, ethnicity, race or other factors that contribute to a person’s experience of the world. Building on the work of Jean Koh Peters, Sue Bryant, Christine Zuni Cruz, Margaret Montoya, Michelle Jacobs, Carwina Weng, Paul Tremblay, Marjorie Silver and others, the learning objectives are described as both “breaking” habits of mind and attitude that inhibit intercultural communication and understanding and “making” habits of thought and skills that enhance intercultural communication and understanding. The learning objectives focus on helping students to improve their knowledge about culture and difference, increase their self-awareness about difference and enhance their practice skills across cultural difference. And, of course, as supervisors teach to the objectives, they also learn. The article is called, “Making and Breaking Habits: Teaching and Learning Cultural Context, Self Awareness and Intercultural Communication Skills in a Client-Service Legal Clinic”.

In the article, I also describe a memo that I provide to students at the beginning of the semester setting out the clinic learning objectives in question format. The memo addresses many areas that arise from the MacCrate statement of skills and values. The questions in the memo that address culture and difference issues include: “Do I take every opportunity to learn about my client, including background and culture, as well as the client’s problem and objectives of the representation? Do I research all relevant issues including those involving the client’s culture and background? Do I approach all of my clients with humility and respect? Do I listen carefully to my clients and seek assistance when I feel I don’t understand my client’s perspective? Do I work on understanding myself as a cultural being to better understand differences between others and me? Do I check my reactions to events and try to identify any stereotypes or bias, so that I can ensure that my representation is based on facts and not assumptions? Do I explore alternative explanations for differences as part of understanding differences? Do I seek to understand differences between my client and me and seek to communicate effectively across those differences?

I would be interested in learning from others about whether you state your teaching objectives in a memo and whether you set out teaching objectives related to these issues.

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2 Responses

  1. This is the first I read of a law school course including intercultural competence and self-awareness.

    I’m curious whether your course goes into practical applications like negotiation, client development, and issues of confidentiality which impact professional conduct and loss of privilege.

    For example, an attorney counseling on case’s strengths and weaknesses to a client for whom it would be culturally improper to exclude members of the immediate family from the discussion. What happens to a/c privilege? In my state and federal jurisdictions it’s gone. So plaintiffs’ lawyers are left wondering whether to advise their clients to lie about non-party family members participating in a conversation, or go through the charade of having them sit in the next room. And defense counsel need to wonder whether they would be failing to serve their clients if they fail to inquire of plaintiff abuela “who was with you when you spoke to your lawyer about the strengths and weaknesses of this case.”

    I’m looking forward to your article.

    Jonathan Kroner, JD, MBA

  2. Thank you for your comment. Great questions! The issues you raise would be addressed as they come up in the course of working on the cases. My article presents five vignettes raising cultural issues, but I love your hypo! I wish I had included something like it in the article..

    You describe a classic ethical dilemma, where two important values conflict. And, the applicability of privilege certainly complicates the issue. In your hypo I could see a possibility that we might discuss this issue with the client and present the option of asserting privilege and arguing that the court should treat the family member as it would an interpreter whose presence would not destroy privilege. If the judge were sensitive to the cultural implications this might work. Of course, we would try to use (and build) our skills to communicate about the issue effectively. We would never advise a client to lie!

    Any other ideas to address this excellent hypo?

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