Michael Zhang '14 Volunteers as Interpreter for Securities Arbitration Clinic

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When students in the Law School’s Securities Arbitration Clinic needed an interpreter to best serve their client — an elderly woman who spoke the relatively uncommon Chinese dialect Shanghainese — they turned to a fellow law student for help.

Like many St. John’s Law students, Michael Zhang ’14 is multilingual. Fluent in English and speaking fluent Mandarin and Shanghainese, he agreed to volunteer as interpreter on this arbitrated clinic case during his 1L year. Over the next four semesters, he assisted successive teams of student clinicians by interpreting during client interviews and discussions with opposing counsel, and by translating legal documents and arbitration filings for the client. “I think my speaking the dialect made the client more comfortable, more relaxed, and more willing to go through the long adversarial process,” Michael said.

The client was in a difficult situation. Her broker, who also spoke Shanghainese, had persuaded her to invest into a variable annuity that would tie up her money for at least 10 years, even though she told him that she was retired and needed money right away to pay her bills. The broker never warned her of the associated risks or that she would be subject to charges if she withdrew her money. “When my teammates and I came onto the case in Spring 2013, the previous team had already filed a statement of claim and we were preparing to undergo discovery,” said Katie Berkovich ’14.“Michael had interpreted for the previous teams, so he knew all the details of the case, which was incredibly helpful.”

But working with an interpreter was a new experience for the student clinicians, and there was a definite learning curve. “Not only was it the first time some of us had interviewed an actual client, but we realized we would need to contact Michael for any piece of information we had to relay,” said Katie. For student clinician Steven Widom ‘14, collaborating with an interpreter brought home just how important it is for lawyers to speak clearly and succinctly. “When working with Michael, I couldn’t really speak how I normally would. I had to figure out how to express what I needed to say to my client in as few words as possible, without missing any essential details,” he said.

When the case moved into settlement negotiations, Michael was there to interpret the provisions for the client, so she entered into a settlement with a clear understanding of its terms. Seeing the case come to a positive resolution was meaningful for the student clinicians. “This experience taught me the importance of being able to successfully communicate with a client,” said Enkelena Gjuka ‘14. “It also reinforced my view that being a lawyer requires a lot of patience, passion, and a strong will to serve others.” And, as Michael noted, “It's a great feeling to get a result that a client wants.”

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