Cultural fluency for in-house lawyers

In this article we look at what cultural fluency is, why developing it matters and how it applies to in-house lawyers, particularly those operating internationally.

What is cultural fluency?

Cultural fluency is about utilising and embracing cultural differences in an organisation so as to promote understanding, diversity and growth.

Organisations with international reach increasingly look to make the most of the competitive advantages that their geographical and cultural diversity can bring. While commonalities in systems and approach across the organisation may have many advantages, additional benefits can be derived from recognising and embracing the differences found in a diverse organisation.

Not only can this be important in pursuing competitive advantage by utilising what works best in local markets, it can also benefit the overall growth and development of the organisation by, for example, supporting the development and spread of new ideas and different ways of doing things; enhancing communication and communication skills; promoting collaboration; and developing respect and understanding.

These are all factors that not only help build a robust organisational culture, they also support the organisation’s competitive edge, something that is increasingly important in a global business environment. Conversely, a failure to take account of different ways of thinking or cultural norms can result in miscommunication and difficulties in getting business plans and initiatives implemented.

Developing Cultural Fluency

Cultural fluency is wider than linguistic fluency. How, then, can it be developed? An important first step is to be aware of your cultural blind spots. For example:-

  • Don’t make assumptions. Your solution may not be the only or best one. You may be assuming that the UK or US or HQ approach is the only one that will work, but exposure to other ideas will expand your understanding.
  • Be aware of different communication styles. Cultural norms may emphasise different styles. A direct, concise communication style may work in some cultures but be less effective in others where the norm is to place more emphasis on a contextual approach and non-verbal elements. More may be required than just 'delivering the facts’, so think about adapting your style to suit your audience.
  • Cultural insensitivity. What may seem like normal behaviour in one culture may be seen as almost rude and insensitive in another. And the differences may be more subtle than you think.
  • Personal development. People behave and respond differently in similar situations and there may be cultural differences too. For example, a management style that emphasises autonomy, self-direction and personal drive, above all else, may not resonate well with those who place more emphasis on team harmony, collaboration, consultation and status.

What does this mean for in-house lawyers?

Organisations with international reach operate in a range of legal, regulatory and economic environments. Their lawyers will often be located in different economic regions with the organisation's most senior lawyer or senior legal team being located elsewhere – in the USA or UK, for example. International in-house teams have to navigate and negotiate these different business and legal environments while maintaining a management structure that provides for local autonomy but which also supports organisation-wide processes and standards. This can result in complex matrix management systems with lawyers in both vertical and horizontal reporting structures, reporting locally to legal and executive management and centrally to senior legal management.

In addition to navigating these varied legal, regulatory and business environments, the lawyers need to be aware of the different cultural norms and nuances that apply in different economic regions. As well as being prized for their legal and business knowledge and expertise, lawyers are increasingly required to understand these cultural differences and sensitivities i.e. to be culturally fluent.

This is not just a matter of appreciating that cultural differences exist – it also means being able to adapt behaviour so that it is not inconsistent with local practices.

What might this mean in practice? Here are a few examples of how cultural fluency is relevant:-

  • Trust is critical to the work of the in-house lawyer. You need to build it with clients and wider stakeholders. Trust is not built simply upon the quality of your legal advice (important though that is) but it also derives from your behaviour – how you conduct yourself and your personal integrity. Being respectful of cultural practices can be an important factor in building trust.
  • Communication styles vary. We know that people respond differently to the same communication but there may also be cultural differences at play that it pays to be aware of. For example, the short, factual, no-nonsense style of written communication that may be appreciated by lawyers and business colleagues in the UK and USA may be seen as curt and unhelpful in other regions.
  • Linked to this is the fact that disagreement or dissent is not expressed in the same way universally. For example, in legal or business meetings we may be used to a format where views are expressed openly and forcefully, sometimes without regard to experience or hierarchies. This may be less so in some cultures where disagreement is less obvious unless you know the signals. This may be very important if you’re managing a culturally diverse team or are advising business colleagues with a different cultural background.
  • Visibility matters. Even in environments where we are used to many business exchanges being in writing (often email) it’s not always easy to pick up important nuances that are not revealed by the words on screen. Hence we like to meet with colleagues as communication has a strong non-verbal element to it. Where teams are geographically diverse, face-to-face communication becomes practically more difficult. But it pays to take time to meet with colleagues in different regions as this helps clarify meaning; increases trust and understanding; and strengthens team identity and relationships.
  • Collaboration. Many international legal teams work hard to ensure that information and knowledge is shared across regions. Not only does this enhance understanding, it helps strengthen the identity and ethos of the global team. It may also facilitate cross regional working where knowledge of cultural differences (as well as business and legal distinctions) will be important to effective co-operation. For this reason many legal teams either develop their own academy to build knowledge and collaboration or ensure that their lawyers actively participate in organisation-wide initiatives.
  • Compliance. While there may be cultural differences of approach across regions, there will be certain core legal and organisational standards that are entirely non-negotiable and must be implemented across the organisation as a global framework. This can be a challenge for global organisations as there can be a disconnect between the perceived effectiveness of systems and what happens on the ground locally. This is where local knowledge and cultural fluency can be very important. It’s also about getting that local input before the central programme is signed off. Utilising cultural fluency in this situation may mean, for example, being flexible in the way that standards and requirements are communicated and implemented. So, issuing directives from HQ may be less effective than tailoring communications and training that are a better, more effective cultural fit. This does not mean sacrificing standards; it does mean finding ways to achieve the same legal and regulatory outcomes other than by adopting a one-size-fits all approach. 


Just as emotional intelligence and excellent people skills are becoming increasingly important aspects of the modern lawyer’s skill-set, so too is the degree to which they are culturally fluent. This is especially so for those lawyers working in organisations with an international footprint, whether you’re managing other lawyers or simply advising culturally diverse ‘clients’. At its heart, cultural diversity is about understanding and respect. For in-house lawyers, the challenge is to develop that understanding, respect cultural differences and harness these in delivering high quality legal advice that meets the clients’ needs within the legal and regulatory framework relevant to the particular region. 

To be effective, organisational leaders (lawyers included) need to be able to understand, embrace and build on the differences and diversity in the organisation as they seek to build a common, overarching culture that represents and reflects the values of the organisation. Leaders know that strong cultures underpin strong, successful organisations. Developing cultural fluency, organisationally and individually, is an important part of a strong culture. Cultural fluency is not something usually learned quickly. But if you are a lawyer working in, or with ambitions to work in, a culturally diverse environment, cultural fluency is highly prized and is an attribute well worth developing.