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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

How lawyers and law schools are grappling with cultural competency

Attorney Natalia Vieira Santanna sitting at her office desk
Wendy Reyes
Attorney Natalia Vieira Santanna sitting at her office desk

This story first aired on May 16, 2023 and it aired most recently on the April 29, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Click the play button at the top of the page to listen to this story.

Wendy Reyes is the new Beat Reporting Fellow covering immigration for the KALW newsroom. What would you like to hear her cover? Send us an email at feedback@kalw.org.

When I was in college, my family asked that I meet with an immigration lawyer. They needed legal counsel and thought I'd be the perfect mediator because I speak English and they don't. The lawyer spoke some Spanish, but challenges went beyond language barriers. I began to witness nuances and semantics lost in translation. The lawyer asked me to step in, but I barely understood the legal jargon. I felt the frustration of everyone in the room. In the end I left a couple hundred dollars short and without a case.

That’s why I'm seeking out Natalia Vieira Santanna, an immigration lawyer in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

Natalia is tall, with long black hair, and a bright energy that can’t be contained by her gray suit. She opens her office door and I’m immediately greeted by Tuca, their office dog.

Natalia explains, “Tuca has been coming to the office since the beginning of the office. She thinks everyone’s here to see her, but she really helps out with a lot of consultations actually because we talk about, like hard topics”. 

Natalia’s law practice grew out of a compassion for people and her own experience.

“I'm an immigrant myself… I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life. And looking around me, seeing my friends going through a lot of problems with immigration and knowing that I wanted to, like, work with human rights and with that kind of work, I think it's just like, I think it starts with being like, for me, being somebody who cares… who looks around and see where you're needed, and you care, and you have this skill, and you're trying to figure out how to use it”.

Looking around Fruitvale, I see Spanish billboards, Mexican markets and Guatemalan bakeries. She says, having a diverse law practice in a neighborhood like Fruitvale was always a dream.

“Oh, I hope you know, I hope I can have, like, a staff that reflects, like, the clients that are, you know, choosing to come to my office. And so they can feel, like, very comfortable. So they don't have to worry about getting an interpreter so we can make sure that communication is, you know, the best that we can do”.

The firm is made up of staff who speak Spanish, Portuguese, English and Mam, a Mayan language. I think about how things might have gone differently for my family if their lawyer had been a fluent Spanish speaker.

“Yeah, that you feel like more seen, I feel like. That's like coming from my own experience, you know, as being, like, Brazilian… when somebody speaks in Portuguese, to me it just like touches a different part of me… my soul, I guess”.

She gets it. Speaking the same language as your client is an example of cultural competency, but it goes beyond that. Cultural competence means checking your own biases and assumptions; understanding the cultural backdrop, beliefs, behaviors and needs of a client. A miscommunicated detail or a lack of trust can influence a client to withhold information and derail a whole case. Cultural competence in jobs like law and medicine can be the difference between winning or losing a case, healing or hurting a person.

Natalia knows just how difficult and cold the legal system can be to immigrants, to folk who don't speak English, and are overall experiencing a new reality in a different country.

“Personally I’m like, I understand, but I'm dealing with a system that doesn't understand that… doesn't have a lot of compassion sometimes”.

That's why she wants her law office to be different.

“It's important. I think it's like the basis of, like, having a human relationship”.

A human relationship.

“...because you're talking to people, you're talking about their families, you're talking about their stories about why they left their countries. So there is this, like, very human aspect that sometimes I feel like, you know, everybody maybe who wants to work with every lawyer maybe wants to work with people maybe should get some, like, therapy training in law school, because there's like, I think that's a big aspect of it too”.

It’s not therapy training, but law schools are adding some requirements. In 2022, the American Bar Association adopted a requirement that all law students in the country take anti-racism and cross-cultural training before graduating. The requirements start with this fall’s entering class.

Here, in our own backyard, UC Berkeley's law school is ahead of the game. Championed by professors like Kristen Holmquist, the school is requiring their law students to participate in at least two units from a menu of classes related to race and the law.

“The reason… we even began thinking about whether to require a course like this and what that should look like, is because students came to us,” Kristen says.

They presented a proposal, that said,

“We think a lot about the law, we don't think a lot about the context in which the law either arises or gets applied to people's lives”.

This was shortly after George Floyd was murdered.

“And there was just a huge upswell in interest among the students to be better, contextualizing the work we do, especially around race and racism, and all other kinds of inequalities that law tends to exacerbate or create or ignore.

The point is to break away from traditional power dynamics.

“An old fashioned notion of lawyering… is I'm the boss who understands how the law works. You just tell me what you want to fix. And then now stay out of my way, right?”.

Instead she hopes these new courses help law students be more human-centered.

“Part of what a lawyer has to do in honoring that partnership is a humility around like, I don't always know best, right? And part of what the client knows best is the way this problem that they want solved, fits into who they are in a cultural context… And if you don't understand the human being in their full context, and the way that the law applies to them, then you're probably missing huge pieces of what they need. 

She says lawyers need to keep all of that in mind, even if they can’t know every culture intimately. They also need to keep in mind, race plays a role in many aspects of the law.

“I think that we tend to think about obvious racism in a few big areas of law, right?”

Voting rights, criminal law, anti discrimination law, but what about something like intellectual property?

“It is important to understand all of the ways in which some people have been denied access to their intellectual property around race because of racism”

Employment law?

“It is important to understand the relationship between unions and workers of color, right? There's, there's just a zillion places that it's easy to… think that you're just thinking about a set of rules and not think about the cultural and racial context in which those rules arose”.

She hopes course requirements, like the ones at Berkeley, will help students consider these contexts. Kristen adds that a major step towards ensuring culturally competent lawyers is having a diverse profession.

“The more the profession looks like America, the more likely a lawyer is… any given person is likely to be able to understand or find a lawyer who is not only culturally competent, but fluent in their culture”.

But the profession does not look like America. According todata collected by the American Bar Association, Black attorneys made up roughly 5% of US lawyers in 2021. Latinx counsel made up 6% and Asian lawyers 5%. Only 38% of attorneys in the US are women. The likelihood of working with a client who shares a different cultural background is extremely high.

That’s why Natalia Santanna is proud of her office in Fruitvale, her staff, and the work they do for immigrants.

“It’s a very hard job,” Natalia says, “but it's also very rewarding because when you win a case and you like, see that like a family is going to be able to stay together… or like, this person is not going to have to go back to their country where they were persecuted, it's just, like… it's really hard to beat that feeling”.

It's one of her favorite things about being a lawyer. knowing she can provide the representation immigrants deserve.

(she/her/ella) I am a Mexican-american multi-media artist and activist. As a social justice advocate I strive to inform others about social issues and current events in order to promote healthy and just shifts in our society. I aim to use my knowledge, passion, and skills to face challenges with a creative and solution-based mentality.