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International Lawyering

Challenges in International Communication III

Eye Contact  
In some cultures eye contact is believed to be essential for good communication. In contrast, especially in the Far East, for some cultures this is not the case. So a client from Tokyo may not look directly into our eyes while we present an important legal issue but that does not necessarily mean that he or she is not paying attention to what we are talking about.
Personal Space And Touch
In Northern Europe and Northern America for example people usually leave a space between themselves when interacting. Business people do not touch each other. In the Mediterranean region on the other hand even business people get closer and people do not need to be friends or family members to touch each other.
When I was a small child if I behaved badly to a friend my mother would tell me “Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.” This code of behaviour sounds absolutely correct and it has been a golden rule throughout my life but be careful, this rule does not work in intercultural communication. This is a kind of ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism can be defined as “viewing the whole world only through one’s eyes with one’s belief.” This is a trap that we all have to be careful to avoid. We all have to be aware that the client may have a different background and we have to be honest to ourselves that we may have some prejudices. If we cannot manage to overcome these prejudices we have to learn to control them.
The golden rule to achieve an efficient intercultural communication is “increasing empathy” but the challenge in increasing empathy in intercultural communication is we have to have some idea about the other party’s background and culture. When I meet with a client whose culture I am not very familiar with I read up on not only the possible legal issues that we are going to discuss but also try to collect as much information as I can prior to the meeting. The Internet can be a very useful source for this.
Stereotyping can be defined as “generalizing a group based on some prior assumptions.” If I believe “all Americans are know-alls, they think they know everything.” or “all Iraqis love guns” or “Italian clients always try to find a way not pay to lawyers fees.” (This is valid for Turkish clients by the wayJ) then I forget that we (including the clients) are individuals that whatever group we belong to we may have different values. Stereotyping is something very dangerous for lawyers because if we start stereotyping then we start forgetting that each client is an individual.  And if we start forgetting that each client is an individual then we start forgetting that whatever we are doing for each client is unique. No two deals can be identical, there is and there should always be a personal touch in each issue we are dealing with.
Cultural Imperialism
We are all brought up in a certain culture and it is not unnatural that deep in our hearts we may believe that our culture is better than the others but let me tell you a secret no culture is superior to the other. Such prejudice may lead what is called a “horizontal dialogue”. In a horizontal dialogue parties are not equal, one party is “higher” than the other party. The most efficient dialogue is “vertical dialogue” where parties are equal and no one is superior to the other.

Challenges in International Communication II

Different Approach To Lawyers
Clients from different cultures may have different ways of working with lawyers. For example most people in Western country want their lawyers to be with them from the very beginning. I personally also believe that this is the way it should be but on the other hand we know that in some cultures, especially in the east, the attitude is “you do not need to contact a lawyer till everything is messed up.” or “call the lawyer at the very last minute just for formalities sake.”  It has happened to us.  We’ve come face-to-face with a 50-page contract that we have never seen before, emailed to us for revision and with just 30 minutes for us to share our detailed comments! And to be honest I do not know how to overcome this “inter-cultural problem”.
Foreign Investors’ Limited Initiative
The foreign direct investments of multinational companies very often appear to be separate affiliate companies registered in that foreign country. Although these companies have their own directors, managers and organization because they are “affiliates” the directors and managers may not have the initiative to take important decisions. It is for this reason that we have to be careful about timing. We have to notify the client as early as possible so that they would have the time to consult to the headquarters.
Foreigners Do Not Know What We Know About Our Law And Legal System
Law itself is a part of the culture and the client may think that the legal system is or should be more or less the same in a different country. This may not be only a client-centred mistake, it is possible for a lawyer to have a similar view. When dealing with a local client usually we do not bother emphasizing the widely known legal basis and instead we simply jump to the conclusion because we assume that the client is aware of the basics of the legal system. However, the situation with the foreign client may be (and often is), totally different. When assisting the client we have to make sure that he or she understands why we are doing things that way but not the other. We have to be patient in explaining the ABC of our legal system so that we can communicate better. For example, there are some routine but important things that we all do. Normally a local client would know when and what to do in such routine situations however a chief legal counsel sitting at the headquarters of a multinational corporation dealing with issues concerning their investments in China, Italy, Germany, and U.S.A. may not be aware of or recall some procedures that have to be carried out Turkey. We do experience instances where multinational Companies forget and or cannot understand why certain routine work is important. So what we do is even if for a routine and basic task we always start with a simple one paragraph explanation on local law, try to outline very briefly the highlights and then in the second paragraph we ask for the required documents.

Challenges In International Communication

In verbal communication language is the biggest challenge. It does happen very often that a foreign language is the common communication language of the client and the lawyer but that language is a “foreign language” to both of them. I am communicating with clients from Germany, Italy, Qatar, Korea, Israel and our common language is English. For sure our vocabulary is limited, compared to our mother tongues and sometimes we give different meanings to the very same word.  We, therefore, have to search for the real meaning of what the client is saying. What I do is to ask open ended questions to confirm that I really understand the client’s needs correctly. I push the client to tell me the story from the very beginning and spend really more time with patience, compared to a local client, to understand the whole picture. Language is a barrier not only in client/lawyer communication but also in business communication of both parties. Sometimes we see that a client and the other party, with total good faith, believe that they agree on something but actually they both mean different things. So actually there is no agreement. Therefore a deal lawyer has to search for the real meaning of not only what the client is saying but also what the other party is saying.
Recently, a few months ago we were approached by a Korean Company seeking legal assistance in a specific matter. Their investment in Turkey is a partnership with some local Turkish Companies so there are Turkish members on the board of the Company but the majority of the shares and therefore the majority of the seats on the board belong to the Koreans. At first we had a meeting with the Korean clients and during the meeting we were very confident that we understood the problem clearly and that we had the ability to provide them with an effective solution. We were told that they were very much satisfied and the solution we were proposing was also exactly what the Turkish partners were looking for. Later on one of the Turkish board members who was informed about our meeting with the Korean clients called me on the phone and told me totally a different story. We were very much confused and realised that there was almost no communication between the Koreans and their local partners. So we proposed to meet with the Turkish and Korean parties together and what we saw was that some of the Turkish board members did not speak a word of English, they only spoke Turkish. The other Turkish board members spoke some English, but could not be described as fluent and it was this group who had taken on the task of translating what the Koreans were saying for the non-English speakers. Naturally the result was that nobody understood anybody properly but all sides believed that they were in agreement.