Understanding Local Cultures: A Necessity for International Lawyers

Dr Hossein Sartipi

(7 Jul 2023)

Lawyering styles have led to a new approach that acknowledges the importance of indigenous cultures and their role in international law. In a specific context, this refers to lawyers who work on cross-border cases or with clients living outside the territorial regions hosting courts. Regardless of their knowledge of local laws applicable in the courts, cultural factors that shape local behavior, beliefs, and everything else that originates from a society’s culture must be considered. Cultural competence is undoubtedly important for lawyers, including barristers and solicitors, to understand the precise vision that reflects how important cultural criteria are. This plays a vital role if lawyers intend to achieve the best possible outcome for their cases in an international setting.

First and foremost, ethical considerations of representing clients’ cultures are essential in justifying the role of culture in successful lawyering. Research and objective observations show that lawyers can better understand the nature of local laws and regulations when they analyze the logic of laws. To presume, if American lawyers are preparing their clients for a hearing session in Namibia, they must extract legal obligations under the context of conceptual indigenous notions. Namibian society distinguishes between immediate family members and other stages, making it impossible to impose American human rights criteria from thousands of miles away. This necessity is even more applicable when recognizing a subject or concept based on local elements. In Japan, lawyers must understand the country’s unique legal system, which is heavily influenced by the culture of respect and hierarchy. For example, lawyers must be aware of the importance of saving face and avoiding confrontation in Japanese culture, which can affect the way disputes are resolved. By understanding these cultural factors, lawyers can better represent their clients and navigate the legal system. Also in South Africa, lawyers representing clients in land disputes must understand the country’s complex history of land ownership, which is intertwined with issues of race and culture. They must also take into account the traditional land tenure systems used by many indigenous communities, which differ from the Western concept of private property ownership. By understanding these cultural factors, lawyers can better represent their clients and work towards a fair resolution of the dispute. Therefore, for effective communication, lawyers must imagine themselves on a clear stage based on indigenous culture.

In addition, a better understanding of local cultures is helping lawyers navigate the challenges and opportunities of working on cross-border cases. Anti-social behaviors can be intertwined with local cultures, customs, or traditional structures. For example, a criminal standing trial in a French court may be accused of harassment for kissing a boy in a park outside Paris. In the accused’s culture, kissing children is seen as a kind and affectionate gesture, but in French culture, it may be viewed differently. It is vital for lawyers to draw attention to the accused’s cultural background to defend their case effectively. For instance, if the accused is a recent arrival to Paris and has not had enough time or experience to learn about French culture, this information can be used to explain their behavior.

Two real-life examples illustrate the importance of cultural competence in international lawyering. In 2016, a Pakistani man was charged with assault in a UK court after he slapped his wife in public. The man’s defense team argued that the act was culturally acceptable in Pakistan, where domestic violence is not uncommon. They presented evidence of the cultural norms and beliefs surrounding marriage and gender roles in Pakistan to argue that the man did not intend to harm his wife. This case highlights the importance of understanding cultural differences when representing clients from different parts of the world.[1] Also, in 2018, a Chinese businessman was accused of insider trading in a US court. The man’s defense team argued that he had no intention of breaking US securities laws, as he was not familiar with the nuances of the US legal system. They presented evidence of the man’s cultural background and lack of experience with US laws to argue that he did not have the requisite intent to commit insider trading. This case illustrates the importance of understanding cultural differences and legal systems when working on cross-border cases. [2]

Last but not least, practical experience and analytical observations show that cultural differences can significantly impact legal negotiations and dispute resolution, playing a crucial role in strategic lawyering. International lawyers often negotiate in languages that are different from their own and may need to communicate with clients or other lawyers who speak a different language than the official language of the court. This can lead to misunderstandings or even new disputes, complicating the case. For example, in Arabic and Persian cultures, men do not accept free social conduct as some Western countries do. Therefore, different respectful language is appropriate when addressing women in an official meeting. In 2017, a dispute arose between a Chinese company and a US company over the use of a trademark. The Chinese company argued that they had been using the trademark in China for many years, while the US company claimed that they had exclusive rights to the trademark in the US. The two companies had difficulty communicating due to language and cultural differences, which led to misunderstandings and delays in resolving the dispute. The case highlights the importance of understanding cultural differences and using effective communication strategies in cross-border negotiations.[3] In addition, in 2019, a German lawyer represented a client in a divorce case involving a Saudi Arabian couple. The lawyer had to navigate cultural differences in the couple’s views on marriage, divorce, and child custody. For example, the husband believed that he had the right to custody of the children, while the wife argued that she should have custody based on her role as a mother. The lawyer had to be sensitive to these cultural differences and use effective communication strategies to negotiate a fair settlement for both parties. This case illustrates the importance of cultural competence in family law cases involving clients from different parts of the world.[4]

In conclusion, strategic lawyering requires a new attitude towards indigenous cultures, which plays a vital role in international law. Lawyers must understand the importance of cultural criteria to better represent their clients and achieve the best possible outcomes for their cases. Ethical considerations and a better comprehension of local cultures are essential in justifying the role of culture in successful lawyering. Cultural differences can significantly impact legal negotiations and dispute resolution, leading to misunderstandings or new disputes. Therefore, international lawyers must increase their knowledge of local cultures and conflicts that may arise in court to navigate the challenges and opportunities of working on cross-border cases effectively.

1- Siddique, H. (2016, May 17). Pakistani man cleared of assaulting wife as judge rules he did not know it was wrong. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/may/17/pakistani-man-cleared-of-assaulting-wife-as-judge-rules-he-did-not-know-it-was-wrong

[2]– Choudhury, S. (2018, August 2). Chinese businessman acquitted of insider trading charges in US. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/9b2e1c3c-95a8-11e8-b67b-b8205561c3fe

[3] – Chen, J., & Huang, X. (2018). Cross-Cultural Communication in International Business Negotiations. International Journal of Business and Management, 13(11), 1-13. doi: 10.5539/ijbm.v13n11p1.

[4] – Kassem, D. (2020). Cultural Competence in International Family Law: A Case Study of a German Lawyer Representing a Saudi Arabian Couple. Journal of International and Comparative Law, 7(2), 1-16.