Cultural competence is a set of cultural behaviors, skills, and attitudes integrated into a system, agency, or its professionals, enabling them to work effectively in cross-cultural situations. Cultural competence is based on the premise of respect for individuals and cultural differences and the implementation of a trust-promoting method of inquiry, advice, and counsel.
~National Center for Cultural Competence
For years medical schools and schools of social work have integrated cultural competence training into their curricula, recognizing that the provider or social worker’s understanding of and sensitivity toward the patient or client’s educational background, religious beliefs, ethnic traditions, and other cultural factors can have important—sometimes life or death– consequences. Just as a medical provider or social worker’s cultural competence matters, a lawyer’s level of cultural sensitivity and self-awareness can have a key impact on the outcome of a client’s case. It can also influence the effectiveness of the judicial system as a whole, including, for example, gross racial disparities in sentencing in criminal cases.
Given the increasingly strained nature of race relations following the deaths of Freddie Gray and other African Americans; the continued focus on ethnicity, national origin, and religion in fashioning foreign policy, national security, and immigration reform; and the changing laws and polarized attitudes involving sexual identity and orientation, it is more important than ever for attorneys to understand how culture and identity can influence the attorney-client relationship and case resolution. Moreover, the need for a more culturally sensitive bar will only increase in the coming years. The most recent Census Bureau data show the U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse and a majority of the population will be comprised of minority groups by 2044; meanwhile, our U.S. bar is not seeing any significant increase in diversity.
Fortunately, the judiciary and law enforcement are starting to recognize the need for cultural competence training. Training programs are slowly cropping up around the country, including Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s “Race Matters for Juvenile Justice” implicit bias training program and the county’s new mandatory “Dismantling Racism” program for all prosecutors, law enforcement, and other judicial officers. Moreover, the American Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission is currently working on producing educational and training materials on implicit bias for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. However, very few law schools, if any, have begun intentionally incorporating cultural competence training into their broader curricula. This remains so despite the Clinical Legal Education Association’s stance in its 2007 Best Practices for Legal Education Report stating “sensitivity and effectiveness with diverse clients and colleagues” is one of five professional values law schools should teach.
Understanding the importance of cultural competence in training practice-ready attorneys, this academic year Charlotte School of Law clinical professors Rocky Cabagnot and Fernando Nunez, in collaboration with race law professor Christie Stancil Matthews, have undertaken a program to develop a more effective means of teaching lawyering cultural competence to clinical students in the Immigration, Human Rights, Entrepreneurship, Community Economic Development, and Homelessness Prevention Clinics. On October 23, 2015, they presented on their efforts at the 2015 Southern Clinical Conference at the University of Memphis. As presented at the conference, the immediate goals of the new training program are to: (1) increase student engagement and acceptance of the cultural competence curriculum, including concepts of implicit bias, privilege, and race-consciousness, (2) encourage long-term incorporation of cultural competence principles in interactions with clients, and (3) provide a training model that is clinician-friendly and takes into account course time constraints.
The training content is founded upon the “Five Habits for Cross-Cultural Lawyering” written by Professors Susan Bryant and Jean Koh Peters, which has become a widely-accepted method for fostering cross-cultural lawyering skills. These “habits” essentially call for an attorney to understand one’s own cultural background and cues; to actively recognize the cultural differences and similarities between themselves, their clients, and other key judicial players; and to erect practices to ensure they are not allowing their own biases and heuristic tendencies to negatively impact the representation. With that in mind, the new Charlotte School of Law training program itself consists of introductory and mid-semester lawyering cultural competence training sessions, student self-reflection papers, independent implicit association testing, and pre and post-assessments. During the training sessions, students explore their own cultural background and leanings; learn how culture can affect communication style, such as eye contact and personal space; discuss how heuristics—or mental short-cuts—can lead to subconscious biases; and tackle the emotionally tough concepts of privilege, institutional isms, and race-consciousness.
While a determination of the effectiveness of the training is still ongoing, one thing is clear— the clinical students trained so far are eager to acquire cultural competence skills. The anonymous assessments have shown that the overwhelming majority of these students have a strong desire to be trained in cultural competence. They also show that very few of them were ever previously trained.
The self-reflection papers evidence acceptance of and efforts to implement the training principles. Many comments show that the students are intentionally identifying and countering their own perceptions and biases that may hinder the attorney-client relationship or negatively impact case analysis, strategy, or engagement. Some comments evidence greater cultural awareness and sensitivity as early as the first client meeting following the mid-semester training session. For example, one Entrepreneurship Clinic student stated:
The first client and I were similar in that we were both African American and with no children. The rest of our cultural identities were different…. His appearance was sweatpants, a t-shirt, and gym shoes. Off the bat, I was thinking that he needed help [getting] a dream off the ground. I immediately found I was wrong. [He] had two organizations very well established…. I realized more and more how appearances can make us think negative things about people, and it can be the complete opposite of who and what that person is about.
Another clinical student wrote:
The client I interviewed at the Advice clinic was extremely different than myself with regard to age, race, and religion…My client is an extremely religious individual, which is in sharp contrast to my own more spiritual views… Her religious views impact not only her day to day life, but what ‘business’ venture she is embarking on…The client has a tendency to use her religious views a lot in relaying information. This is something I have to be aware of, and allow myself to be open to.
Through the cultural competence training, students learn that awareness is not enough; being culturally competent requires that the legal professional adjusts his or her behavior accordingly. As one student wrote about an initial meeting with a Vietnamese client, “I was looking at him without taking my eyes off, then realized that he was not doing the same. Therefore, I changed my strategy as I did not want to put the client in an awkward position.”
This semester, the cultural competence trainings will continue for Professors Cabagnot and Nunez’ clinics and are being expanded to some other Charlotte Law School clinical students as well, including students in the Homelessness Prevention Clinic.
Anyone interested in more information about these lawyering cultural competence training efforts may contact Professor Christie Stancil Matthews at email@example.com.
~ Prof. Christie Stancil Matthews ~