Tuesday, 25 March 2014

What Does a Lawyer Need from You?

This is a question I can attempt to answer for you on the basis of my experience from both sides of the fence. As far as theory goes, I know much more about the law than about business or marketing or even translation itself. So this is not a theoretical analysis but a friendly head-to-head where you can pick my brain (or rather I open it for you).

Any lawyer needs you to be punctual. Unlike some other clients lawyers understand that their deadlines are extreme and may be more prepared to compensate you adequately for the rush. However, as far as they go the 'dead' in 'deadline' is there for a reason.

Consequently, they also need you to be available. They understand that you have physical limits (although they will respect you more when you push those limits as hard as they do), but they need someone to be there when they need a translator. Needing someone to translate a motion with a limited filing window or a ruling that needs to be challenged quickly or urgent client mail or a ton of corporate work with a deadline is different from looking for someone to translate their website or something else that can wait. Also, they may still respect your professional standing despite needing you to be responsive and even somewhat flexible at times, as they themselves often take responsive and flexible to an extreme, even as highly valued and highly compensated specialists in their own field.

They need you to be faithful and exacting. What linguists may refer to as 'clumsy syntax' is often there for a reason. Style — while important (we'll get there later) — takes precedence after fidelity and content. They don't want you to be streamlining the things which you consider redundant. Lawyers are also linguists in their own way, and they are acutely aware of the different shades of meaning in words and phrases which most linguists normally consider interchangeable. They also tend to be conscious writers, and so you can presume that whether they repeat something ten times over or distinguish it they know what they are doing.

They need really good QA from you. No wrong numbers, no cross-translations (e.g. Buyer and Seller getting mixed up), no missing or added negations (which happens to tired translators), no confirming of 95% after nary any reading (which happens to translators who are trying to be too fast), nothing should be missing and nothing should be added, either. In case of doubt, ask the lawyers (and better sooner than later). The good news is that you can probably charge them appropriately for the QA because they of all people understand the importance of it. They probably know first hand how exhausting and ungrateful a task it can be — they are writers, after all.

They need consistency. This is a matter of both QA and fidelity. Those CAT tools you have will prove useful, but you may still need to look things up depending on how segmentation works in your CAT tool. For the record, you can probably mention your CAT tool as an asset (and mention that it wasn't freeware).

They need you to ask them rather than taking risks. Okay, some lawyers can be rude if they think you should know the answer, but feel free to ask them what happened the last time a translator didn't ask but decided to figure out the points of law on his or her own. When asking questions you can use the opportunity to reinforce your professional image much like doctors do, which lawyers themselves are learning to copy. They also need you to ask them sooner than later.

They need you to be tolerant of legalese. One translator will not change what generations of lawyers have passed on to their successors. Keep the campaigning for conferences, blogs, even your head-to-head time with your lawyer client in a more relaxed atmosphere. But not when the clock is ticking and the firm is a besieged city (you can tell from the size and deadline of the job among other clues). On the other hand, simple language should stay simple. It's probably simple for a reason.

Finally, they need you to keep your imagination in check. This relates to fidelity and to asking them questions. Research the subject, look things up, ask the lawyers, but no guessing, no hit or miss attempts, no reinventing the wheel (unless what you're doing for them is a marketing job). Rather, the outlet for your creativity should be in seeking ways to preserve equivalence.

What about style?

I mentioned style in the beginning. Strong writing skills and a good style are a valuable asset for a legal translator to have. This holds true especially for letters, correspondence, articles, memos for clients, not to mention the lawyers' websites and marketing materials that you translate. If you can deliver legal writing on par with the best of them, then you will be a gem among translators as far as they go. However, when in doubt you should be simple and clear. Don't start what you can't finish. Again, no letting your imagination out of control. Also, lawyers may already know how to edit a layman's writing for style and lingo, and they have likely been editing their own sidekicks and assistants for quite a while (junior lawyers, secretaries, paralegals, possibly even some of their clients).

While not being a necessity, good legal style can be a boon to any firm which takes its image seriously. While at it, you can probably offer some educational and consulting services or just informally coach your lawyer clients who communicate in their non-native languages. Lawyers tend to be smart and dedicated learners. Also, if they remember you as the guy (or gal) who facilitated their success (e.g. by coaching them up on the writing they use to make or keep clients), they will have a harder time replacing you with someone who is cheaper (or a senior partner's cousin or a translation agency who is a client).

As for where to start working on your style, I'll write more about that some time next month.

How else can I benefit from what I've just read?

In consideration of your staying with me and not falling asleep by now, I thought it would be a good idea to let you know that you can use this knowledge in building a good rapport with your current and prospective lawyer clients. If you show them that you understand their problems, you will have a better chance convincing them that you can solve those problems. If you prefer to — and know how to — switch your presentation from problems to challenges or opportunities, then all the better, but you still need to understand them. In any case, come with knowledge and use that knowledge to solve their problems and facilitate their opportunities. And feel free to come up with other things you can solve or facilitate for them — my list is not exhaustive.

Okay, I am a legal translator with some experience, I know this stuff, how do I put my point across?

I'm not a marketing person, but if you have no better idea by now, you can even do something simple like:

As a law practitioner you [need/require/face/value/appreciate/must have/depend on/can't live without/absolutely can't live without]. (...)
As [a qualified/experienced/seasoned/aspiring] legal translator I [know/understand/provide/facilitate/can (...)/cause/make sure] (...).

Thereafter you can follow with an innovative approach and phrase your value proposition more along the lines of: 'I [help/assist/enable/facilitate – adjust your grammar] lawyers do X (for their clients) by doing Y (for them).' You can even insert a why or how, or both, before you say what you help them do. But be brief. You don't have infinite time, and lawyers don't have infinite time spans. If you'd like to find out more about how to say all this in a short time, you can read my Proz.com article about elevator speech. The article references sources where I got the idea from, which is potentially a lot of reading and watching material if only you're interested. And no, none of that material was authored by me, I'm a green rookie compared to those guys. I'd be like a paralegal in a partners' meeting if I tried to keep up with them.

Please feel free to share this article with fellow current and aspiring legal translators or those who consider transitioning into the field (bloggers feel free to repost this with a simple acknowledgement of the source). It is important for me that lawyers have good translation service, which is also crucial to their clients' receiving good legal assistance. Plus, it's important for that legal translators know how to present their case adequately (or better) and win the hearts of their lawyer clients.

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