Acquiring Foreign-Born Clients: Marketing Legal Services to a Growing Niche

Copyright © by Nina Ivanichvili, CEO, All Language Alliance, Inc.

Introduction

There is an under-represented, largely untapped market in multilingual America. It is growing exponentially-and so is its purchasing power. In 2002, more than 11 percent of the total U.S. population, or 32.5 million people, were foreign born. Among them, 52 percent were born in Latin America, 26 percent in Asia, 14 percent in Europe, and the remaining 8 percent in other regions of the world, such as Africa and Oceania.1 The national buying power of Hispanics, pegged by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, was $653 billion in 2003, and is projected to exceed a trillion dollars in 2008.2 The buying power of Asian consumers was $344 billion in 2003, and is projected to reach $526 billion in 2008.3

Based on the above, many foreign-born Americans are likely to own their own businesses, obtain mortgages and buy homes,4 acquire college degrees, and generally create great marketing opportunities for law firms that pay attention to their needs. Clearly, their participation in the economy would generate a need for legal services pertaining to such areas as business law, immigration law, family law, civil litigation, workers' compensation, and criminal law. On occasion, foreign-born Americans also are likely to need legal advice related to government contracts, labor law, franchises, landlord/tenant law, liquor licensing, insurance law, real estate law, condominium law, construction law, estate planning, and elder law.

Unlike their predecessors, newcomers to the country continue to keep their sense of cultural identity by retaining their native languages and customs. Today, almost one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home.5 In 1999, for example, 22 percent of the total student population of the Denver Public School system was enrolled in English as a Second Language ("ESL") classes. The top five languages spoken by ESL students were Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.6 For purposes of this article, such individuals, often called "ethnic Americans," are referred to as "foreign born." "Foreign-born" persons are defined here as those who have been raised in a foreign country, currently reside in the United States, and speak little or no English.

Many law firms make no concerted effort to connect with and market directly to this potentially lucrative niche market. Some law firms may not want to deviate from an existing marketing strategy, and would rather wait for this market to come to them. Other law firms discount this market as unworthy of time and effort, due to the often-parochial perception of such clients as "difficult." Still other firms may assume that foreign-born clients should be served only by lawyers who speak their own native languages.

In the past, many law firms have hired minority attorneys fluent in the languages of such clients. However, despite initiatives undertaken by many law-related organizations, there is a scarcity of minority attorneys and, perhaps, bilingual attorneys in the marketplace. Minority entry into the legal profession has slowed significantly since 1995,7 making it prudent for law firms to seek other means for representing foreign-born clients effectively.

This article suggests ways American law firms can establish key points of differentiation, or gain a competitive edge, in the minds of foreign-born clients. It discusses the need to develop cultural sensitivity and bias-free language skills, the way to become a foreign-language-friendly law practice and the alternatives to advertising in the traditional mainstream media. Finally, the article provides practical tips for positioning the law firm as an "expert" in serving foreign-born clients.

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