Speaking loud and slow might be all the rage among oiled-up holidaymakers but if you want to get ahead in the legal world then knowing the local lingo could make all the difference.
The deal’s going south. The clients aren’t happy with something but their business English isn’t good enough to properly explain. The lead partner tries saving the situation with his limited Russian but now the clients are looking aghast, and are starting to walk out the door. 'Captain!' – you assail your surprised supervisor, channelling your best impression of Zoe Saldana's Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek about to face off with the Klingons: 'You brought me here because I speak Russian, then let me speak Russian.' All it takes is a few questions and the misunderstanding is resolved. The deal is back on and you come home a hero.
While it's unlikely you'll ever find yourself outnumbered and facing the Klingons, it's a good bet that if you're bilingual or multilingual, at some point in your legal career languages are going to work to your advantage. White & Case's graduate recruitment partner Gareth Eagles points out: “Language skills help our lawyers a lot – when deals happen to involve people from the relevant places, they can speak to them in their local language, potentially saving time and cutting to the chase on a given point, or helping them form useful relationships.” Those are probably the most obvious use of languages in an increasingly international legal profession but there are certainly a raft of other benefits to knowing the local lingo.
First stop: bagging that training contract, and when you're overwhelmed for choice, languages and international interests are one way of whittling down that shortlist. There are many graduates whose love of languages directed them towards certain law firms. “I speak English, French and Arabic and have lived in a bunch of countries,” one White & Case trainee explained. “So it made sense to apply to firms where I could actually use my international skills.” Others harboured dreams of eventually transferring to foreign offices to live out their lawyering days in sunnier climes. It's worth quickly pointing out, though, that if you do plan on moving overseas permanently or practising foreign law while you're abroad, you'll have to contend with meeting the local Bar requirements. The hoops which you have to jump through to do this vary by location: for example, working in New York means passing the onerous New York Bar exam while any lawyer can set up shop in Dubai where there are no transfer requirements.
“I figured an unusual language would mark me out as a unique candidate.”
But back to the beginning: when it comes to training contract applications, language skills alone won't get you through the door but they're certainly a strength worth emphasising, not least because they often demonstrate a commitment to developing new skills and an ability to learn quickly. “I figured an unusual language would mark me out as a unique candidate,” one Japanese-speaker told us. “The partners focused on it a lot during my training contract interview and HR encouraged me to continue studying it before starting at the firm.” In fact, a couple of our forward-thinking sources had even singled out firms which appeared likely to be in need of lawyers with particular languages. “Rather than applying to places with multiple Russian speakers I targeted law firms with a smaller presence in those areas. Now I’m one of the few Russian speakers at the firm. My interviewers made it clear that they appreciated my fluency and could definitely use them as the firm moved further into that market.”
Some law firms go so far as to directly advertise for specific language capabilities, with the current desired fluencies ranging from Italian to Mandarin and Arabic to Korean. “We have a ton of Italian clients so people with fluent Italian can certainly put their skills to use,” a trainee at one global law firm reported. “It’s not all about Italian!” they were quick to add. “The firm is keen to recruit people with other language knowledge too as we are becoming an increasingly international firm.”
So how closely are law firms' hiring preferences tied to wider international strategies? “Our strategy is always evolving in terms of where our clients are on the ground, so it would be pretty short-sighted to match our requirement only to our current needs,” White & Case's graduate resourcing and development manager Christina Churchman says. “So it's always useful for us to know if applications have certain language capabilities which align with our overseas needs or our larger strategic plans.” That said, Churchman is keen to point out that at White & Case “when we hire people with languages we're not trying to home in on any one language in particular. There really aren't many places in the world where we don't have a presence in one way or another so trainees will be able to put many languages to good use.” Ensure you thoroughly research the main markets a firm operates in before applying and make your interests and skills clear to recruiters. Chat to lawyers who speak the languages you do in the firm you're applying to and ask about their experiences. “I reached out to a senior associate,” one White & Case trainee recalled. “She gave me a brilliant run-down of how she'd used languages in her career.”
Once you’ve nabbed that training contract, languages can still play a role in developing your experience. For example, speaking a second language can put you ahead of the game when it comes to overseas seats. Some firms have strict language requirements – ranging from A-level proficiency to fluency – which dictate who can go where, while others merely list them as a preference. Even where language requirements aren't specified, those skills can still come in handy when seat allocation becomes competitive. As one unlucky trainee at a City firm revealed: “Paris was my first choice for an overseas seat but it was very popular. I missed out because my French skills weren't as good as others'.”
That said, many firms are happy to send their trainees abroad with little or no language experience – “my French doesn't go much further than asking 'où est la plage?'” one Paris-based interviewee at an English firm admitted. Several law firms even provide language lessons for trainees but these tend to be limited to helping you survive socially: it's worth knowing a few words to help your integration into a foreign office. “It's become so much easier to forge good relationships with colleagues as my French improved,” one White & Case source claimed. Outside the office it always helps to be on the same page as the locals: “I was the only fluent trainee in our friendship group so I used to bail everyone out of misunderstandings in restaurants!”
“Once my supervisor realised I could speak some German he encouraged me to use it as much as possible and started taking me along to German-language meetings.”
Ultimately, most trainees in overseas seats are stationed in English law practices, so not being able to speak the local lingo shouldn’t affect things too badly. But if you want to get further ahead while abroad, knowing even a fraction of the native language widens exposure and opens up opportunities. “Once my supervisor realised I could speak some German he encouraged me to use it as much as possible and started taking me along to German-language meetings,” one source at an international firm reported. “I didn't know enough of the language to be able to speak up but I'd get the gist of what was going on.” A White & Case trainee added: “The majority of my work is in English but I've also been able to help out with Japanese elements of deals and liaise with local counsel, which often helps to speed up the process. I've also helped lawyers and business staff with translations.”
Then there are some whose savoir-faire has propelled them further than they ever expected. A White & Case associate reported: “I worked on a deal which involved the sale of a securities subsidiary to a Korean client. Being a fluent speaker meant that when the team wanted to save costs I was the natural person to send to Korea to close the deal by myself.”
J'en veux plus!
Even while on home turf in the UK it's possible to flex your linguistic muscles, for example by assisting with translations, reviewing foreign documents or corresponding with overseas clients in their native tongue. Christina Churchman at White & Case explains: “Trainees who can speak other languages may be able to lead certain client calls if not everyone present can speak English. We've even had trainees who've become the first port of call for a particular client because they feel more comfortable speaking in their native language.” That's not to mention that, as one source highlighted, being a linguist “helps you develop an overall appreciation of different cultures and cultural etiquettes and it can help you be more understanding when dealing with non-native English speaking clients.”
“One of our trainees recently chose her next seat based on her interaction with a certain department after she answered an email from them asking for an Italian speaker."
Languages aren't just a key tool in maintaining client relationships. There's every chance they'll open up other opportunities too. A trainee at one City firm recently served a freezing order on the opposition's client in fluent Russian while White & Case graduate recruitment partner Gareth Eagles recalls “a Korean-speaking vac scheme student who ended up staying for the whole summer because the team he was sat in was involved in an arbitration with a Korean client.” And how about potentially changing the direction of an entire career? Christina Churchman said this: “One of our trainees recently chose her next seat based on her interaction with a certain department after she answered an email from them asking for an Italian speaker. It was an area she'd never considered working in until she got to know them because of her language skills.”
From the examples above you'd be forgiven for thinking that if you're bilingual the opportunities will find you. But to make the most of your abilities – and not let them wither and die through lack of use – it really pays to be proactive. “Make sure you let people know about your skills as new opportunities will often crop up when people realise you can speak another language,” one source emphasised. It definitely seems to pay off as that individual's repeated requests for language lessons and pre-training contract internships abroad saw them whisked away to various locations across Asia. “If you don't ask you don't get,” one source concluded. “The worst someone can do is say no. You'd be surprised at how encouraging law firms are about developing language skills.”
Learning a foreign language does not just have practical applications. It also proves that you can acquire a new skill quickly and proficiently.