The Five Habits: Building Cross-Cultural Competence in Lawyers

Susan Bryant


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Professors Susan Bryant and Jean Koh Peters developed a methodology called “the Habits”. The methodology consists of five habits targeted to enhance an individual’s ability to interact with others from foreign cultures: developing ‘cross-cultural competence’. Specifically, through evaluation of various paradigmatic lawyer-client interactions the author illustrates how culture informs the actions of clients and how the lawyer can facilitate a meaningful interaction with the client by engaging with their cultural idiosyncrasies. The exposition proceeds in the context of training clinical students, but the practical application of the theory transcends this setting.

The first section disavows the notion that a good lawyer is “culture-neutral”:

  • Globalization has had a tremendous impact on the legal arena; indeed common interactions among individuals have been infused with a heightened degree of diversity.
  • Ignoring cultural differences, in the context of lawyer-client interactions, prevents the lawyer from appreciating “the reactions that they and the legal system may have towards clients and that clients may have towards them.”
  • Awareness of cultural differences and how to navigate them facilitates bespoke legal services adept at meeting the needs of the client.
    • Caveat: emphasizing awareness of cultural differences should avoid reinforcing stereotypes.

The second section presents a methodology – The Five Habits –  for developing cross-cultural competence in lawyers. The aim is to adapt the lawyer’s analytical exercise when interacting with clients such that judgments are made based on facts and not bias/stereotypes. The Five Habits are listed below:

  1. Degrees of Separation and Connection
    1. Habit one concerns the differences and similarities between the lawyer and client and how these inform the lawyer-client interaction.
  2. The Three Rings
    1. Habit two concerns the impact of the differences and similarities on the interaction between the lawyer, client and legal-decision maker: the three rings.
  3. Parallel Universes
    1. Habit three requires the lawyer to conjecture alternative reasons for the client’s conduct, particular in circumstances where the lawyer is drawing a negative inference.  
  4. Pitfalls, Red Flags, and Remedies
    1. Habit four directly relates to communicating with the client. It requires the lawyer to engage in conscious cultural awareness when communicating with the client.
  5. The Camel’s Back
    1. Habit five concerns the possible areas where bias and stereotype may interact to undermine the lawyer-client relationship.


The purpose of the article is to describe a method for improving a lawyer’s ability to relate to individuals from foreign cultures – aptly termed “cross-cultural competence”.