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Attorney Fee Agreements Not in English

In prior posts, I’ve gone over issues such as the presentation requirement when an attorney and client sign a fee agreement. On my Youtube channel, I’ve also gone over topics such as what a California contingency fee agreement has to have.

In this post, I’m going to go over California’s requirements for a fee agreement when the agreement is negotiated in a language other than English. The relevant California statute is going to be section 1632 of the California Civil Code. If you read section 1632, you’ll quickly notice that it is not specific to attorney fee agreements, but discusses more broadly the question of when a written contract needs to be provided in a language that isn’t English.

The relevant portion of section 1632 that applies to fee agreements between clients and attorneys is sub-section (b)(6), which provides:

“Any person engaged in a trade or business who negotiates primarily in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean, orally or in writing, in the course of entering into any of the following, shall deliver to the other party to the contract or agreement and prior to the execution thereof, a translation of the contract or agreement in the language in which the contract or agreement was negotiated, that includes a translation of every term and condition in that contract or agreement:

(6) A contract or agreement, containing a statement of fees or charges, entered into for the purpose of obtaining legal services, when the person who is engaged in business is currently licensed to practice law pursuant to Chapter 4 (commencing with Section 6000) of Division 3 of the Business and Professions Code.”

What this means practically is that if you don’t speak English and you want to hire an attorney, that attorney has to provide you whatever fee agreement they have in the language that you actually do speak, understand, etc. I think this would be the case even though section 1632(b) only mentions Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean.

One exception to this rule that a written contract has to be provided in a language other than English is if the person who doesn’t speak English had the services of their own interpreter. Section 1632(h)(1) provides:

“This section does not apply to any person engaged in a trade or business who negotiates primarily in a language other than English, as described by subdivision (b), if the party with whom he or she is negotiating is a buyer of goods or services, or receives a loan or extension of credit, or enters an agreement obligating himself or herself as a tenant, lessee, or sublessee, or similarly obligates himself or herself by contract or lease, and the party negotiates the terms of the contract, lease, or other obligation through his or her own interpreter.”

In case it matters, Section 1632(h)(2) defines “interpreter” as follows. The important part to note here, I think, is that the interpreter is not employed by or made available through — in this case — the attorney in question.

“As used in this subdivision, “the party’s own interpreter” means a person who is not a minor and who is able to speak fluently and read with full understanding both the English language and any of the languages specified in subdivision (b) in which the contract, lease, or other obligation was negotiated, and who is not employed by, or whose service is not made available through, the person engaged in the trade or business.”

As with my post on the presentation requirement for a fee agreement between an attorney and client, a failure by an attorney to present a written copy of their fee agreement in the language the client speaks means that the client may rescind the agreement entirely per section 1632(k).

The safest thing to do is that if the other party or parties to your contract do not speak or understand English, provide them a written copy of the contract in their native language in order to avoid any headaches or other problems that might arise.

As always, I hope this post was helpful. It is not a comprehensive or exhaustive discussion of the topic(s) mentioned nor was it intended to be. If you’re going to rely on the information I’ve presented (e.g. for a court case), please do your own research. It is entirely possible that the authorities I mention above might have changed in the time between when I wrote this post and when you read it. If you have a situation involving a contract that was presented in English to a person who doesn’t understand it, please do find an attorney in your area with whom you can discuss the specifics of your case.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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