Tag Archives: Languages

Yo soy una abagada (I am a lawyer)

Angie Robertson graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2010. She has experience with public interest law, family law, legal document review and sales.  When she is not reading or writing about law, she enjoys live music, exploring Chicago, watching roller-derby, and spending time with her husband and her dog.

As anyone who is on the job market knows, speaking fluent Spanish can be a huge asset to your job search. As anyone who has ever learned or attempted to learn a second language knows, this task is no small feat. Hiring attorneys looking for bilingual, entry-level, Spanish-speaking attorneys and paralegals aren’t looking for high-school level speakers who can fluently ask clients questions such as: “Where is the hospital?” “Do you like to sing?” and “What is your name?” Typically, those hiring seek a native speaker or attorneys who just happened to spend a semester abroad in college or a few years in Peace Corps in Central or South America. Those folks are out there, but they are in high demand and they tend to swoop up jobs quickly.

Enter my brilliant idea when and I needed to find a job: I will become fluent in Spanish. I had taken four years in high school and thought this might take one month, three months max.

I started by buying a book I found on Amazon called “Spanish for Attorneys and Paralegals” (William Harvey, 2009). It comes with a CD with helpful words and phrases. I give it about three stars out of five. Half of the book is very basic, written for an audience who is completely unfamiliar with the Spanish language. But these were all things I’d learned in high school, so I continued to the legal terminology sections, but this was not very helpful either. Granted, I learned some new vocabulary, but there wasn’t a lot of direction on what to do with it. For example, one key phrase included “what happened with” followed by a list of legal nouns. I imagined myself asking: “¿Què pasò con la tarjeta de credito?” (What happened with the credit card?) It almost wouldn’t matter how the client responded, there was no way I was prepared to understand and respond effectively without asking her to repeat herself 10 times. This would not do.

I did some research for Spanish classes geared towards attorneys. I found a few private instructors, but surprisingly little. None of the bar associations have sections for bilingual attorneys—at least none that I could find. If anyone reading this knows of one that was right in front of my face and I missed, please comment to this blog and tell me. I was reminded of my days clerking in the collections courtroom at the Daley Center, where I learned there are only three Spanish translators covering all of the courtrooms.

I wrote several admissions counselors at city colleges. This seemed like exactly the type of thing a city college is intended for. I was informed that the city colleges do not provide continuing adult education in Spanish. Finally, I was lucky to find a small private language school a few blocks from where I live and immediately enrolled.

Currently, I am in Spanish Three (of five levels) and what I have learned about the complexity of the language has been surprising. Prepositions and pronouns are different and word order can be confusing. There are at least four different forms of saying things in the past tense. There are two different words for “for” and for the basic verb “to be,” and using the incorrect version can completely alter your message. Don’t get me started on the homonyms. My instructor knew that I was a lawyer and was hoping to be able to use Spanish in my practice someday, so she gave me a legal vocabulary list that was at least three times as long as the one in the book I purchased months before. I was annoyed to find that the word for “handcuffs” is the same word in as the word for “wife.” I imagined that this homonym could lend itself well to stand-up comedians and probably has for decades. As a fan of comedy, I sincerely hoped these homonyms were at least being put to use to make creative punch lines rather than obvious ones.

When I started this voyage of learning Spanish, I took it extremely seriously hoping it could help me find a job within six months. When I became more involved, I realized this would be a much longer and more intensive learning experience than what I had anticipated. It has now been six months since I began classes and, although I am now confident that I could have a conversation with a client about what happened to her credit card, I am still looking for a job and still not satisfied with my mastery of the language. Learning Spanish has been a challenge that has reshaped the way I view the world and what I imagine the future for my career—whether legal or beyond. As they might say in Buenos Aires, Madrid, Santiago, or even here in Chicago, “A veces, nuestros sueños pueden cambiar.” (Sometimes, our dreams can change.)