As Ohio lawyers adapt to serving an increasingly multicultural population and endeavor to meet the needs of the hearing impaired, there is an unprecedented need for participation of language interpreters in the legal system. One state’s ethics committee recently addressed the ethical obligations of a lawyer representing a client with whom the lawyer cannot communicate directly. It noted that a lawyer's inability to communicate directly with a client in a language understood by the client does not necessarily preclude the attorney from ethically representing the client.1 Instead, if a lawyer cannot communicate directly with the client, the lawyer may ethically represent the client if the lawyer uses a qualified, impartial interpreter to conduct adequate communications with the client, and takes appropriate steps to protect the client’s confidential information.

If a lawyer cannot communicate directly and fluently with his or her client in a language that the client can understand—whether because the lawyer and the client do not speak the same language, or because either the client or lawyer is hearing impaired—the lawyer must utilize a qualified, impartial interpreter. The ethics Committee recommended as best practices: (1) associating with a bilingual attorney, (2) working with a bilingual employee or staff member who can interpret communications between the lawyer and client, or (3) utilizing a commercial or community interpreter service.2 Though these alternatives are not always practicable, lawyers are cautioned that using relatives or friends of clients as interpreters may compromise ethical obligations such as:

Competence. A lawyer’s obligation to provide competent and diligent representation to his or her client requires, among other things, that the lawyer obtain ample information about the client’s problem from the client and develop a strategy, in consultation with the client, for solving the legal problems of the client.3

Communication. A lawyer’s obligation to communicate with his or her client requires, among other things, that the lawyer “reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished” and that the lawyer “explain the legal and practical aspects of a matter and alternative courses of action to the extent that such explanation is reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.4"

Confidentiality. The presence of any interpreter does not diminish the lawyer’s duty to maintain the confidentiality of client information. A lawyer representing a client through an interpreter must ensure that the interpreter has a clear understanding of the obligation to keep the client’s communications confidential.5