When attorney Stephen P. Foley was in law school, he didn’t give much thought to how his undergraduate degree in Russian Area Studies would benefit his legal practice.
But his ability to speak fluent Russian has proven to be a valuable asset, especially at a time when some attorneys are struggling to find consistent work.
Foley is a general practitioner who maintains an office in Shorewood, a Milwaukee suburb with a substantial population of immigrants from the former U.S.S.R.
“On a daily basis, I’d say 25 percent of calls I get are from Russian-speaking immigrants,” he said.
Those clients ask for legal help with everything from landlord-tenant disputes to personal injury cases.
While the work isn’t glamorous, it has remained steady for Foley, who several years ago relocated his office from downtown Milwaukee to be more accessible to his Russian clients.
As the minority populations in the state continue to grow, so too has the opportunity for bilingual attorneys to expand their client base.
“It’s absolutely a growing niche,” Foley said.
The ability to speak a second language makes an attorney more “marketable,” agreed Anissa M. Boeckman, of Kasdorf, Lewis & Swietlik SC. (http://www.kasdorf.com/)
She started studying Spanish while in grade school and realized at an early age the professional advantage of being able to communicate with a broader range of people.
While her insurance defense practice is not a magnet for Spanish-speaking clients, Boeckman said she has translated for witnesses and helped other attorneys at the firm retain clients who may have otherwise been turned away.
“I would hate to approach a client with the attitude that if you don’t speak English, we can’t help you,” she said.
Bankruptcy attorney Kyle A. Lindsey speaks both Japanese and Spanish and said the latter has especially come in handy.
While many bankruptcy firms are keeping busy during the recession, the ability to communicate with another segment of the population is an added asset, he said.
“There are [only] a few attorneys who speak Spanish and do bankruptcy work,” Lindsey said.
Since he joined his firm in 2006, Lindsey has seen the number of Spanish-speaking clients grow, largely through word of mouth referrals.
“Until then, my guess is they would have been turned away,” he said.
But neither he nor the firm directly markets to the Spanish-speaking population, in part because Lindsey is the only attorney at Todd C. Esser & Associates who speaks Spanish.
He noted that as competition for that specialized segment of clientele increases, so too will a firm’s need to focus its marketing efforts.
While fluency in a second language is not something that can be achieved overnight, Foley said simply having some basic understanding of a different language can help grow a practice.
He said one way he markets himself is by networking through existing clients.
“I basically try to represent entire [Russian] families,” he said. “Once you initiate that attorney-client relationship with one, it’s all about the quality of service, especially in a small community.”
Foley said he also advertises his bilingual abilities in two local Russian newspapers.
“To target them in their native language is the best way to do it,” he said.
And Boeckman suggested that younger attorneys are more likely to study a second language, either before or after they start their law careers.
“It certainly allows attorney to build a greater client base, especially through referrals and advertising,” she said. “Those who speak a second language hopefully go out of their way to hold on to those bilingual skills.”