Are you speaking the right language?

By Rachel Buchanan

Recent research into linguistic diversity in FTSE 250 legal teams (defined as in house counsel in UK operations of the FTSE 250 companies) reveals that while there is a high proportion of European languages spoken (French, German and Spanish) by lawyers, there is a distinct shortfall of bilingual and multilingual lawyers speaking the language of the emerging economies of the Middle East and Asia.

The research carried out by Obelisk in September 2013 shows some encouraging statistics about languages in general. Out of the 2930 lawyers identified, nearly a quarter spoke a foreign language, with 25% of those who do speak a foreign language being female. There were 65 different languages spoken, with French the most popular at 58% of those researched. At the other end of the scale however, only 12 people list Cantonese, 9 Mandarin and 10 Japanese.

The proliferation of Western European languages would seem to be reflective of current trading patterns and close cultural and political links between UK companies and their continental neighbours. Research conducted by Legal Week in February 2013 regarding a backdrop of shifting economic power to emerging markets does show that firms are responding to this change and are increasing the number of Mandarin-speaking lawyers in their Hong Kong offices since 2011.

Interestingly, neither Arabic nor Turkish features on the list of languages spoken. However, the Mergermarket M&A Round-up for Q1 2013 suggests that with M&A activity increasing to EUR 13.4bn last year (the highest since 2006) Turkey could become an important player in the near future.

So, is it important to be able to conduct business in the local language? Does the future of law depend on an increase in the numbers of languages spoken by lawyers?

Currently, the report suggests that the majority of legal documents are dealt with in English – will continued outsourcing mean that in time there will be one common language of law? Are other languages even going to be relevant in the future when carrying out legal work or will the English language be the preference?

The Obelisk report supports the viewpoint that other languages will be both relevant and essential, suggesting that the lack of capability in non-western languages is likely to exacerbate the need for additional language support, as well as extending beyond a commercial concern. “Being able to understand the client’s language can assist the conduct of business, breaks down barriers and enables lawyers to take into account the cultural background of the client and solution”.

If this is considered a necessary step, is the solution to encourage lawyers to speak more languages (including lawyers in the emerging markets to speak English), educate our children in UK schools in non-Western European languages in addition to the current languages learnt, or, is the solution to recruit native speaking lawyers at the relevant level of local expertise to assist with business deals in those emerging markets? The Obelisk reports suggests that the research “evidences the trend towards particular languages in education systems producing UK qualified lawyers” and that “in order to prepare for the change in language requirements facing UK companies, education will need to keep pace. Being able to learn languages from around the world will become increasingly important for law graduates entering the industry as will access to continuing professional development with a language element”.

The most diverse organisations of those considered by the survey were banks and energy firms. Even in those firms, the report questions what opportunities are being given to lawyers whose talent lies in language skills?

It would seem that we need to increase the number of languages spoken to engage fully with a global market rather than shift the emphasis away from French, German and Spanish to the emerging Asian and Middle Eastern markets. It is interesting that the EU parliament has increased their official languages from 4 to 24 to reflect the multiculturalism of the countries that it represents, rather than consolidate to key global languages.

Do we need to actually increase the native diversity of our UK qualified lawyers across global offices, rather than encouraging more multilingual skills? Or, perhaps language skills will soon be as important and valued as legal skills. Whatever the answer, it cannot hurt to take a personal interest in increasing your professional development by learning a relevant language to your sector and market.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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