Wanted: Lawyers Who Speak Spanish

Posted on Categories Legal Education

Writing in 2004, Anne Marie Slaughter, the current Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State and former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University recognized, “The consensus among lawyers, CEOs, NGO activists, and others is that the people whom they would most like to hire are those who understand how to navigate between cultures.  In a dream world, such competence would include knowledge of at least one foreign language.”

Slaughter’s wishful thinking now appears to be reality. A recent Wisconsin Law Journal article reports that bilingual attorneys are carving out a “growing niche” in legal practice in the state.  The WLJ reports, “As the minority populations in the state continue to grow, so too has the opportunity for bilingual attorneys to expand their client base.”   Now it seems, new lawyers will not only wish to market their law school academic achievements, but also their command of a language other than English.

In particular, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in Wisconsin has increased by 48.2 percent since 2000, numbering close to 300,000 members of our community.  In Milwaukee alone, the Hispanic population represents twelve percent of the population.  This trend reflects the national population growth of Hispanics, estimated as of July 2008, to be 46.9 million people.  People of Hispanic origin now makes up fifteen percent of the national population, and constitute the largest minority group in the United States.  Not surprisingly, these changing demographics directly impact the legal community both locally and nationally.

Notably, the Hispanic legal community already enjoys solid roots in Wisconsin.  In fact, the Wisconsin Hispanic Lawyers Association celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, and has helped tackle issues to make the courts more accessible to the Spanish speaking community, such as institutionalizing the practice of providing court interpreters and publishing a directory of Spanish-speaking lawyers for the courts to help people find legal assistance.

Wisconsin lawyers like Gerardo H. Gonzalez, recognized as a one of the 2009 Leaders in Law, can take credit for being pioneers in forging this legal niche. When Gonzalez began his solo practice in 1989, he recognized that the Hispanic community was under-represented.  As a bilingual attorney, he was able to make this constituency an important part of his practice — including his pro bono service to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce-Wisconsin, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary.  Eventually, Gonzalez went on to establish the law firm Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP, one of the largest minority-owned law firms in the country, with thirteen offices nationwide.

Lawyers like Gonzalez recognized early on an indisputable fact: In addition to the need of serving local Spanish speaking populations, the globalizing economy puts a new premium on language skills, especially with transnational transactions becoming more common. Bilingual lawyers no longer represent a luxury, but rather a necessity for law firms.  Consider for example that there are approximately 500 million Spanish speakers around the world, and Spanish is the official language of twenty-one countries and is the third most widely spoken language in the world (after English and Mandarin).  With international trade, the need for understanding foreign legal systems, cultures, and languages is now an imperative. Yet, the historical tendency of the United States to be monolingual (as most evidenced by the lack of foreign-language training in elementary and secondary schools) puts us at a disadvantage with our polyglot competitors from other nations.

Responding to this new market trend, a handful of law schools across the country have begun to offer law classes in a foreign language.  A quick survey reveals that Columbia Law School, Michigan Law School, Boalt Hall at the University of California-Berkeley, Georgetown University Law School, and the University of Miami School of Law are among the few who are “jumping into the vanguard” of offering law classes in Spanish.  Yet, these schools are in the minority, and these types of classes are still the cutting edge. 

For that reason, it is exciting news that Marquette Law School is joining the ranks of these innovative law schools by offering for the first time the course “Comparative Criminal Law and Procedure—In Spanish.”  This open-enrollment course comes at the initiative of our own students, who approached Dean Joseph Kearney with the idea for such a class.   After several months of research, a small ad hoc committee of MULS faculty presented a proposed course that was approved by our Curriculum Committee last month.

The class will be taught by Alejandro (Alex) Lockwood, who has served as a public defender in the Office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender in the Milwaukee Trial Office since 1991, when he graduated from University of Minnesota Law School. 

Professor Lockwood was born and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela.  He came to the United States after high school to learn English, and lived with a host family that spoke no Spanish.  With patience and diligence, he was able to gain command of English and eventually enroll in the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he graduated with honors in 1987, and then went on to earn his J.D.   According to Professor Lockwood, “During my second year in law school, I discovered my vocation. I had my first experience defending indigent persons when I was accepted in the law school’s Misdemeanor Clinic working in conjunction with the Hennepin County Public Defender in Minneapolis. My first client was a Marielito Cuban — who did not speak English — charged with domestic violence. I also participated in the Prosecution Clinic with the City of St. Paul City Attorney Criminal Division, where my ability to interact with Spanish-speaking victims was also immensely helpful.”

Professor Lockwood is currently an attorney supervisor and represents indigent persons accused of felony offenses.  During his early years of working for the Public Defender, he was assigned mostly cases involving individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses.  As he gained more experience, he began to accept the challenge of representing those accused of very serious crimes.  Notably, many of his clients are Spanish-speaking.  As Professor Lockwood observes, “I make every possible effort to humanize them in their ordeal. I feel that my ability to speak in Spanish with my clients strengthens our bond and my commitment to them.”

Learned societies have already called upon Lockwood to share his knowledge of criminal law, including the Public Defender’s Conference where he has shared his experience challenging the admissibility of confessions illegally extracted by the Milwaukee Police in a first-degree intentional homicide case, as well as talked about the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.   Although he will be a new member of MULS adjunct faculty, Professor Lockwood has already enjoyed many years working with MULS students as interns, an experience that made him discover that “teaching is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career.” 

Professor Lockwood has shown great enthusiasm for MULS’s initiative to offer a course in Spanish, finding it a smart response to the demographic changes in our country and a way to celebrate our diversity.  Also important is that our students will gain not only language skills but also a comparative look at Latin American legal systems, which are currently undergoing significant legal reforms.  As Professor Lockwood comments, “A comparative analysis will allow the students to explore not only the changes taking place, but will also help them understand the fascinating cultural context that makes our jurisprudence different from Latin America’s.  Regardless of the type of law practiced, understanding cultural differences enables you to relate on a personal level with clients and peers who have only experienced law through a Latin American perspective.”

Marquette Law School is thus helping to make Slaughter’s “dream world” come true.

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