Educating Culturally Sensible Lawyers: A Study of Student Attitudes about the Role Culture Plays in the Lawyering Process

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Lawyers' cultural experiences, biases, and perspectives may differ from those of clients, colleagues, and judges. Awareness of such differences is critical to effective representation because cultural perspectives may affect numerous aspects of the lawyering process, such as interviewing, counseling, negotiating, strategising, and persuading. Empirical data that informs the debate about the need to teach students to work across cultures is particularly relevant as lawyers serve increasingly diverse populations and transnational practice continues to grow. In this article, we describe a survey developed to provide law faculties with data to help assess the need for cultural competence education and to inform the discussion of what that education might encompass. In this article, we discuss the reasons to consider developing students' abilities to work effectively across cultures, the survey design and methodology, and the survey findings. Initial results indicate that the students surveyed largely want to learn about how culture may affect the lawyering process, generally are aware that culture may affect client behaviours, but may be less aware of the effect culture has on their own perceptions and behaviours. They also indicate that simply taking a survey such

as the one described herein has an educational benefit. We discuss the implications of those findings for law teaching. While the work described herein was done in the United States, we believe the issue transcends national borders and we hope this article provokes discussion across borders about the need to develop law students' abilities to work effectively amongst countries' own diverse populations as well as transnationally.

I INTRODUCTION

Today's lawyers practice in a multi-national and multi-cultural world and must be able to interact effectively with people from cultures different than their own. While some legal educators recognise the importance of teaching students to understand and address the role culture plays in the lawyering process, (1) other legal educators may be less familiar with the importance of developing students' ability to work effectively across cultures. Similarly, medical educators have confronted the need to educate colleagues about the importance of developing students' abilities to work with patients from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. (2)

In 2000, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education (LCME), the medical school accrediting authority for U.S. medical schools, introduced a cultural-competence standard. (3) Development of the standard was prompted by the recognition that 'language and culture affect health care beliefs, choices and treatment' (4) and that the different cultural experiences of health care providers and their patients contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in health and health care access, (5) In the years since that standard was introduced, medical educators have treated development of students' abilities to work with people from a wide range of cultures as an important subject for both pedagogy and research. Health care educators have designed numerous teaching methodologies and cultural-competence learning outcome measurement tools in health education. (6) Based upon this work, we began exploring whether similar instruments could be developed for legal educators. Before developing an instrument to measure student learning outcomes, we believe it is useful to develop an instrument that measures law students' understandings of, and desires to learn about, how culture affects the lawyering process. The instrument can help inform the debate about the need for educating law students to work across cultures and what that education should encompass--a necessary prelude to conversations about student learning outcomes.

Although 'cultural competence' is the most commonly used term to describe teaching students to work effectively across cultures, we prefer not to use it because that term implies one can become 'competent' in another's culture. …