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How wide is your community: Practical application for lawyers | Wes Thiessen

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 @ 2:29 PM | By Wes Thiessen

Wes Thiessen %>
Wes Thiessen
In part one, I discussed aspects of the continuum of community, a spectrum on which “Communitarian” ways of living lies at one end and “Individualist” ways of living lies at the other. Along with several other axes of cultural characteristics researched by sociologists, this locus of space between you and others helps define different cultures. Part two describes how knowledge of this continuum can be applied by lawyers.

If you were born and raised in a culture that leans towards the Individualistic side of this spectrum, you will likely raise your eyebrows at choices or decision-making processes employed by Communitarians. If your client says that she would like to confer with a family member before making a decision, or if the parents of your client call your office to give their advice or perspective for you to consider before moving forward with the file, you may be dealing with an individual whose family has more input in their lives than that with which you are familiar.

Confidentiality may be an issue you have to raise with your client, making it clear to them that if other family members become involved, you are not legally able to discuss the matters of the case with them in the manner they might like. Your office may all of a sudden feel a little small as extra bodies turn up to interviews or consultations. Clients may relay more family input when they meet up with you to go over something related to their matter.

You may experience a situation where you and your client make a decision together, only to be informed sometime later via phone call or text message that they have changed their mind and will not be proceeding the way you had agreed. This can come at the hands of involved family members who mean well, and sometimes impose their position on others as is reasonable within their culture.

Although these examples may seem disturbing, and in some cases Canadians would say they have gone too far and are interfering in someone else’s private matter, it is possible to take advantage of Communitarian cultural values to the benefit of your client. If your Communitarian client is facing a challenging situation, their family can be leveraged as a strong support system in this time of difficulty.

If your client has recently lost a loved one, having their community around them may provide more logistical and moral support for them in their time of loss. If your client is having trouble making a wise decision, sometimes family members can help them to see the implications of different options, which will help them avoid making a choice that may be detrimental down the road. The family and friends your client has may be a strong support to them in a time of need.

A greater challenge, though, may be when your client comes from a Communitarian culture; they have immigrated to Canada and now they have lost the support system that they relied on for most of their lives. In this case, it may be suggested that your client reach out to like-minded individuals here in Canada, people from their home culture, or those who share their religious or social values.

This is when it is useful to be aware of the various community-based resources for immigrants. You might not be able to provide the support that your client needs, but you may be able to point them in the right direction where they can find that much needed support.

All of the scenarios in part one concern the focal point of each person on the Communitarian-Individualist spectrum. Being aware of this dimension of culture can enhance one’s ability to understand those who come from a culture different from their own.

If you have an Individualist orientation, being aware of a Communitarian focus can help you better understand why a client may make a choice different from what you might advise. You may also find clients outside of their home culture responding in ways that are surprising. Having deeper insight into your own clients will likely help you serve them better.

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one: How wide is your community?

Wes Thiessen lived in the Middle East and North Africa for over 17 years. He now lives in rural southern Alberta with two of his married children, their spouses and two grandchildren. Thiessen works as a family mediator. You can reach him at

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