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  • Sanchit Varma

Language barriers for a career in international arbitration

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.


This proverb formed the bedrock of the United States' foreign policy at the beginning of the 20th century. The essence of the policy is that one must negotiate with other nations peacefully, but to bank on one's military capabilities if other nations decide to play hard-ball.

Use of the proverb in President Roosevelt's letter dated 26 January 1900

Following the "big stick policy" allowed President Theodore Roosevelt to secure American interests in Central and Latin America, and notably in the construction of the Panama Canal.



Fast forward to more than a century later, the big stick policy continues to hold relevance in being the basis of negotiations and disputes over legal matters. Lawyers are expected, through a finesse of words and command over the technicalities of language, to negotiate a favourable position for their clients. If they fail, they are expected to resort to the array of adversarial actions available under any legal system.

To speak softly and carry a big stick, however, assumes that one can speak, and moreover that others can understand what one is speaking.


The Latin American affair


By its very nature, international arbitration brings together lawyers and litigants from different jurisdictions. To ensure that arbitration proceedings run smoothly it is a prerequisite that parties are conversant in a common language, or that translators assist in bridging the language gap between the parties.


According to Jayant Malik, a 2019 graduate of Cornell Law School, a lot of law firms in the US involved in international arbitration tend to be focused on Latin America for business.


A lot of law firms in the US tend to be focused towards Latin America

The primary languages spoken in Latin America are Spanish and Portuguese. When it comes to employment opportunities, law firms' focus on Latin America creates an inherent advantage for students who speak Spanish, Portuguese, or to some extent French. Carlos A. Mycotte, partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP, notes that "Ideally, at least one of the attorneys on a team should be fluent in the client’s language.", and "Attorneys who speak the client’s language fluently should be used instead of translators for several reasons".


Attorneys who speak the client's language fluently should be used instead of translators for several reasons

Conversely, this may put English-speaking students at a disadvantage when competing against Latin American students for jobs in international arbitration.


An insurmountable barrier?


Language lies at the essence of interpretation, and words are the tools with which lawyers seek to secure the best outcome for their clients. For this, a considerable command over the language in which one is practicing law is essential.

Humans can learn different languages, and can even attain a native-level command over several of them. This can in turn open doors in international arbitration which would otherwise remain inaccessible.


The problem, according to Jayant, lies in the fact that even if you were to have a native-level command over Spanish, Portuguese or French, you would still be competing against students who are based out of Latin American countries. Such students have the added advantage of being part of a network of lawyers and business owners in these jurisdictions, and being privy to the cultural sensibilities of these countries.


Unless you have lived, or practiced, in these jurisdictions - it would be extremely difficult to build a network and gather such cultural perspective.


A balanced perspective


Language barriers are not unique to Latin America, and as Jayant points out, international students can face such issues in any jurisdiction, including Singapore, Europe or Canada.


There will always be students who have a superior command over language, or those who have studied the legal systems of countries offering employment opportunities in their undergraduate courses, giving them an inherent advantage over their peers.


The perspective to be gathered is that language and cultural barriers do exist, and can have a decisive impact on one's employment prospects after graduation.



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