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UK in-house lawyers 'lack language skills'

Posted by: Laurence Simons 11/10/13

Even though everyone knows that foreign language speakers can understand English as long as you fix them with a piercing glare while speaking slowly and loudly, a new report has suggested in-house lawyers from the UK could be losing out if they can only converse in their native tongue.

It's a commonplace statement that English is now the lingua franca of the business world and many international transactions are carried out in this form.

However, top in-house lawyers are over-reliant on external support when it comes to dealing with foreign speakers, making it difficult for them to form close relationships with their interlocutors, reports Legal Week.

Just 24 per cent of FTSE 250 lawyers speak a foreign language, according to research by legal outsourcing group Obelisk.

The three foreign languages most commonly spoken by top in-house teams in the UK are French, German and Spanish, but only a tiny number of respondents were able to converse in Mandarin or Chinese.

Obelisk chief executive officer Dana Denis-Smith said that while legal drafting is often done in English, business development and social interaction is easier if lawyers speak the same language as their clients.

Mastering the language spoken in emerging markets such as India can be "the difference between getting by and getting ahead", Ms Denis-Smith suggested.

In-house lawyers can try other options, such as the Steve McClaren trick of speaking English in a persuasive foreign accent or the classic dad-on-holiday mime, but ultimately learning the language is the best way to interact with colleagues and clients.

As emerging markets become more important to the business model of many international firms, ambitious lawyers may wish to look into picking up at least a basic grasp of languages such as Mandarin.

However, they are unlikely to reach the levels attained by the stand-out polyglot highlighted by Obelisk's research - RBS lawyer Rajesh Gohil, who speaks eight languages including Russian and French.