Denver Bar Association
January 2004
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Hola! Not the Only Spanish for Lawyers

by Valeria Elliott

Spanish—it’s just one more practical tool a lawyer can add to his or her legal skill set.

Interesting Facts
about the legal system in
Spanish-speaking countries

Lawyers generally choose a judicial career
soon after graduating from law school.

  • Judges perform discovery
  • An investigative magistrate may supervise
    police investigations.
  • New York has more Spanish speakers
    than 13 Latin American capitals.
  • According to Marindale Hubbell, 193
    Colorado attorneys speak Spanish.
Considering that the United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, learning Spanish is an effective way to set yourself apart and to gain a whole new client base.

Two major trends make Spanish necessary: growth in the Spanish-speaking community, and growing internationalization in the legal profession, business and society at large.

While interpreters are a great asset, the best way to control outcomes is to become fluent yourself. An interpreter—especially one without a legal background—may inadvertently choose the incorrect legal term without proper supervision. Many terms used in our legal system don’t translate literally or simply don’t exist in many countries where Spanish is spoken.

For example, in many Spanish-speaking countries, the word "criminal" conveys the meaning "murder." Charging someone with a criminal offense would be very different in Mexico than in the United States.

Besides maneuvering around the languages, court systems and services can differ from country to country. In Argentina, for instance, a notary public, escribano publico, is an attorney who can apply to the government to be licensed as a notary public after two years of additional postgraduate study. Because the number of notaries is limited, many have large workloads, which may cause delays in finalizing transactions.

To learn the language for yourself, full-immersion language classes are more effective than "do-it-yourself" tapes that provide only a small amount of vocabulary, like how to get around in a grocery store. But how will you talk to someone about child custody? Self-directed courses will help, but to really learn the language requires conversation with other Spanish-speaking people.

Quick Legal Terms in Spanish

Breach of contract
Contract of sale
Freedom of Speech

Notice of appeal




Activo, Haberes, Bienes
Incumplimiento de contrato
Contrato de compraventa
Derecho de expresion
El abogado (male)
La abogada (female)
Libertad condicional

Bilingual legal dictionaries also are a valuable resource. Examples include Butterworth’s English-Spanish Dictionary, West’s Spanish-English Law Dictionary, and Aspen’s English-Spanish/Spanish-English Legal Dictionary. Prices range from $75 to $400.

A reliable benchmark of Spanish fluency is a diploma or certificate such as the D.E.L.E, Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera, which is granted by Spain’s Government. The Chamber of Commerce in Madrid also issues a certificate that incorporates business and legal vocabulary.

To get acquainted with the legal culture as well as the language, Latin Lawyer and Latin Trade are periodicals covering legal issues in the Spanish-speaking world. These publications occasionally report which attorneys worked on major international transactions.

By the fall of 2004, the University of Denver College of Law hopes to offer a certificate that will provide attorneys with tools to serve Spanish-speaking clients, both in the United States and abroad. For information, contact Valeria Elliott, (303) 871-6169 or

Valeria Eliott is a lecturer at law for the University of Denver College of Law. She directs the DU program designed to teach the lawyering skills necessary to work with Spanish-speaking clients. She spoke to DBA members in November at a Tuesdays at the Bar about why Spanish is such a helpful tool in today’s legal profession.

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