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Institute on Legal Interpreting: Backstage Access for Sign Language Interpreters

Anna Witter-Merithew Bids Farewell to ILI Attendees

Is it possible to create a learning environment that effectively supports taking 220+ sign language interpreters on a guided exploration of their work, while offering real-world advice on how to enhance this work, and do it all in three days? Prior to attending the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting (ILI) in Denver, Colorado August 21st-23rd, I would have said, Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

If you attended the 2014 ILI you know, not only is it possible, it happened and was amazing!

Behind the Scenes

StreetLeverage is excited to have partnered with Anna Witter-Merithew and the good folks at the MARIE Center to extend backstage access to the 2014 ILI. What follows is a summary of the StreetLeverage coverage.

How ILI Got Started

Anna Witter-Merithew sat down and shared how the Institute on Legal Interpreting got started, the important role of Deaf interpreters at ILI, and the significant contribution made by Diane Fowler in the promotion of advanced legal training for sign language interpreters.

Anna Witter-Merithew Sits Down With Brandon Arthur From StreetLeverage


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Setting the Tone

During any type of guided exploration, it is important to set a tone of collaboration and safety. This task was left to keynote speakers and meta facilitators, Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow.

They sat down and shared their hopes for conference attendees and their excitement to see Deaf and Hearing interpreters exploring strategies to effectively work together.

Carol and Sharon 2

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You can watch both their keynote and endnote addresses below.

Keynote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: The Role and Function of Critical Analysis of Interpreting Performance

Keynote Address: Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow

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Endnote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: Next Steps

Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow - Endnote Address

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Interpreters at the Core

At the center of the conference was the examination of the work of 5 teams of sign language interpreters comprised of Deaf-Hearing and Hearing-Hearing interpreters. This served as the basis of examination for all sessions and group discussions.

These good interpreters shared insights into their teaming and work experience during two panel sessions. You can watch them here:

Panel One: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections

ILI Panel One: Reflections on Deaf and Hearing Interpreter Teams

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Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

ILI Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreter Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

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Better with a Deaf Team

A prominent theme running throughout the conference was the importance of Deaf and Hearing interpreters working together effectively as a team. Jimmy Beldon, Carla Mathers and Kelby Brick share insights into how to this can be done effectively.

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

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Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

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Kelby Brick Sits Down With Brandon Arthur at the 2014 ILI

Kelby Brick at the 2014 ILI Conference

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The Diane Fowler Award

With the passing of Legal Eagle, Diane Fowler, founder of the Iron Sharpens Iron conference (the precursor to the ILI), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Legal Interpreter Member Section (LIMS) Chair, Liz Mendoza, announced the establishment of the Diane Fowler Award.

Liz Mendoza Announces the Creation of the Diane Fowler Award

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There are a couple of real standout developments at the 2014 ILI.  The ILI had 54 Deaf interpreters attend over the weekend. This is the largest of gathering of Deaf interpreters in the field in recent memory (maybe, ever). Perhaps, it is because, in the words of Jimmy Beldon, “The ILI is a ‘home’ for CDIs.”

Deaf Interpreters at the 2014 ILI

The 2014 ILI had 26 facilitators working throughout the weekend in order to support and encourage meaningful discussion and learning. These folks deserve a medal of honor for their tremendous work.

2014 ILI Facilitators


The coverage at the Institute on Legal Interpreting was only possible with the support of several amazing and talented people. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to those magic makers that brought the ILI coverage to life.

StreetTeam - 2014 ILI






Special thanks (left to right) to: Lance Pickett, Jean Miller, Kristy Bradley, John Lestina, and Wing Butler (not seen here).


I would like to extend my thanks to Anna Witter-Merithew, Carla Mathers, and the good folks at the MARIE Center for their vision and the opportunity to partner with them to extend the reach of the ILI to the broader Deaf and sign language interpreting communities.

Brandon Arthur | Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 ILI

Brandon Arthur Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting


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Perception Conflicts: The Role of Sign Language Interpreters in Court

Carla Mathers presented Perception Conflicts: The Role of Sign Language Interpreters in Court at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examined the perspective of court interpreters from the point of view of the court and the attorneys.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Carla’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Carla’s talk directly.]


Hello friends. I’m thrilled to be here.

Today, I’ll be talking about the court interpreter’s role and perceptions about that role from the perspectives of the court, as well as the Deaf Community.

The court has specific views related to the interpreter’s role, as does the Deaf Community. These perceptions include expectations about the court interpreter’s conduct and communication. While in the courtroom, the interpreter’s conduct, communication and decision-making can influence the court’s view of the interpreter’s role and the Deaf party. Similarly, the court interpreter’s conduct and communication can also impact the Deaf party’s perceptions of the interpreter’s role and the court system itself. In some instances, the impact can be positive but in other instances, the impact is not so positive.

Deaf Heart in Court

I’ve been an attorney for over 20 years now, so my view of the interpreter’s role in court is often influenced by the court’s perceptions.

Over the past few years, here at StreetLeverage-Live 2014, at StreetLeverage-Live 2013, on various vlogs, websites, etc., there has been much discussion around the concept of “Deaf heart.”  I must confess that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the concept as it relates to the role of sign language interpreters in court.  On a broader scale, I recognize and acknowledge the need for sign language interpreters to support and value the Deaf community.  I agree that this is important.  After all, some of my best friends are Deaf.

I’m not opposed to supporting the Deaf Community or valuing its members. My focus is specifically related to the interpreter’s role in our court system. The court system is based on a set of rules and protocols. Everyone who has reason to be involved in court is expected to follow those established rules.  At times, the rules of the court will conflict with the rules of the Deaf Community, will conflict with supporting the Deaf Community and will conflict with the idea of Deaf heart. In any conflict between the court’s rules, Deaf Community values, and/or interpreter role expectations, the court’s rules will always trump those other rules. The court system will always reign. Always. Bearing these thoughts in mind, my dilemma has been how to reconcile  our support for the Deaf Community, Deaf rights and the value we have for Deaf people with the rules that the court requires us to apply in courtroom interpreting.

The three examples I selected for this presentation were not chosen because I disagree with the ideas or with the people who proposed those ideas.  In fact, I have a great deal of respect for all three of the individuals represented here. I selected these items because I have some concerns.

Questing for a Deaf Heart

Let me use Betty Colonomos’ quote from her 2013 StreetLeverage article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, as the first example. “Forego ego, pride & unwillingness to fight for what is right”. Does this mean that the interpreter is to decide what is right? Does it imply that the interpreter should decide when to fight and how? Again, as a general concept, I agree with the sentiment but when applied to the courtroom, I see some potential conflict.

In her article, Colonomos cites an excellent example. She writes about juvenile court cases where sign language interpreters, legally certified, specially trained, and experienced enough to know when a Certified Deaf Interpreter is required but who do not act or advocate and instead, accept the legal work without the support and teamwork of a CDI. This example is a good one.

Prioritizing Deaf Community Relationships

In David Coyne’s StreetLeverage-Live 2013 presentation in Atlanta, he conducted a wonderful discussion regarding social justice, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters. He discussed the relationships that sign language interpreters have in the course of their work–with the Deaf Community, the hearing consumers and their relationships with other interpreters. One of his main points was the importance of interpreters making their relationships with the Deaf Community a priority. As I have said, in general, I concur and support this concept.  Again, I ask, how do we apply the concept to interpreting in the courtroom?  If, as a court interpreter, I prioritize my relationship with the Deaf party over my relationship to the court, I may create conflict or even prevent the Deaf party from achieving their desired result from the court system. This is a problem.

Situational Disempowerment

In Trudy Suggs’s 2012 StreetLeverage-Live presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, she discussed issues surrounding situational disempowerment—the way hearing interpreters may, through their routine, every day conduct in the world, unconsciously participate in the oppression or disempowerment of Deaf people. Oppression is not their intention, but it is the end result.  I suggest that interpreters, in their efforts to support Deaf rights and help the Deaf Community, mistakenly participate in situational disempowerment during courtroom interpreting.

Core Value Conflicts – Perceptions and Implications

I have some examples to share with you – stories from my own experience and some that have been shared with me where sign language interpreters attempted to apply one of these concepts to a courtroom setting and which resulted in negative consequences. We’re going to look at core values conflicts and the perceptions and implications of the conduct that reflects these values.

Perception is Reality

Imagine a courtroom where a Deaf witness is completing their testimony. Once the lawyers have completed their questioning, the Deaf witness leaves the witness stand, walking by the interpreter. As the Deaf witness passes, the interpreter reaches out and pats the witness on the shoulder. Both the jury and the lawyer witness this behavior.  Their perception of this action may be that the interpreter is supporting, agreeing and/or establishing rapport with the Deaf witness. The rules of the court require the interpreter to remain neutral. I know that is considered a bad word, but the court system requires neutrality. The interpreter may simply be trying give comfort and support in an oppressive environment, but any appearance of bias should be avoided, regardless of the interpreter’s intentions. Our court system is oppressive and often interpreters instinctively want to mitigate that feeling without considering the potential implications of their actions.

Interpreters as Witnesses

Scenario two is a police interrogation situation.  A Deaf person is arrested and brought in for questioning. A sign language interpreter is called and the Deaf party must wait until they arrive at the police station. When the interpreter arrives, the Deaf person immediately begins to share their story with the first person they have seen who shares their language and an understanding of the Deaf experience. They feel a rapport with the interpreter by virtue of these things and they tell their story to the interpreter. What the interpreter has seen cannot be unseen. It cannot be undone. They now possess information and have no place to put it. The Deaf person likely has little knowledge about the role of the interpreter or the fact that the interpreter could now be called as a witness to testify about the information they just received. What looks like support in the immediate present may ultimately create conflict and severely impact the Deaf person’s experience in the court system. In reality, this decision, that kind of help, is in conflict with what I believe most Deaf people would expect from us as sign language interpreters in these situations. Interpreters must always be cognizant of the fact that sometimes what appears to be “help” may ultimately hurt the Deaf party.

Requesting Preferred Interpreters in Court

Let’s talk about the next example.  In general, when a Deaf person wishes to attend a seminar, meeting, school function or other event, I believe they have the right to request their preferred interpreters. Using consistent, known interpreters often results in better interpretations and outcomes. I’m very aware of that and I support the idea. In courtroom settings, Deaf individuals are not permitted to select their preferred interpreters. Many years ago, as I was starting my career as a lawyer, whenever I would get a Deaf client, I would contact the court and request specific interpreters by name. My requests were always denied. I tried to explain that my requests were based on the interpreter’s level of training and the level of comfort the Deaf party would feel with them. Eventually, I realized that the court is not interested in making the Deaf person feel comfortable. The court’s perception of these requests might be that I’m requesting my friends who will interpret in such a way that they could better my case. Again, the concept of honoring the Deaf party’s preference in interpreters is an important one, but I question how we can apply it to court interpreting.

The next example is one from my own experience. Many years ago, I worked on a case that involved a number of young Deaf children as witnesses. When it was time to call one of the children as a witness, the court interpreter would go to the door and call the children into the courtroom, lead them to the witness stand and then prepare to interpret.  From the lawyer’s perspective, it appeared that the interpreter was helping the children and possibly acting in some sort of babysitting capacity. Ultimately, the lawyer filed an appeal based on the interpreter’s conduct in the court room. While the interpreter had the best of intentions—to provide comfort, the ultimate result was very negative.

Elements of Transparency

My next example is about transparent interpreting. There are two parts to this example. The court has very specific rules about what we are permitted to interpret and what we are not. The conversations and communications interpreted are determined by the court, not the interpreter. A Deaf person may be accustomed to gaining access to any conversation they wish when an interpreter is present just by virtue of asking, however, in the courtroom, that is not the case. The court’s rules dictate what may or may not be interpreted. There are some examples where interpreting is not permitted at all. Bench conferences are a good example of this type of rule. A bench conference may occur when a lawyer objects to something that was said in witness testimony. A bench conference would occur between the lawyers and the judge for a private conversation about what the witness just said. Decisions are made to determine if the testimony will be permitted, if the topic should be dropped, if the jury needs additional instructions regarding the testimony, etc. Basically, a bench conference is an intentionally private conversation in court between the lawyers and the judge and should not be interpreted. The rules of evidence state that bench conferences are to be private.

Carla Mathers
Carla Mathers

In my experience, I have seen sign language interpreters provide bench conference information because they feel that is equal access. Their reasoning is that “if the hearing people can overhear it, the Deaf person should also be able to have access,” and they proceed to provide that information to the Deaf party. Yes, the interpreter is being transparent, but they are also violating the court’s rules and protocols and may ultimately compromise the case.

The other part of transparency may come into play whether the Deaf party is a witness or one of the parties going to court. It usually occurs when the interpreter feels the Deaf party does not have all the information that is available to the hearing participants. It usually involves a conversation between the Deaf party and the interpreter where the interpreter imparts meta-information about “what’s going on” during their interpretation. If we use the example of a bench conference again, it could be that the interpreter can overhear the bench conference and lets the Deaf party know that they have more evidence or whatever the case may be. If you understand the rules of the courtroom as an interpreter, there are only three people that can speak to a witness. When the judge speaks to the witness, they are giving instructions.  Lawyers are also limited in their communication with witnesses and may only speak to them while they are questioning them during testimony. They are not permitted to communicate with those parties during break, lunch or any other time. Finally, the interpreter is permitted to speak with the witness during interpretation only—not during the breaks, not to provide meta-information. While intentions interpreters have—to give comfort, to even the playing field, to provide information access—are good and I understand their motivations, they lack the understanding that these types of decisions can compromise a court situation.

Faulty Decision-Making

This last example is not from my own experience, it is an example that was shared with me. The situation goes something like this: A Deaf person is arrested and the interpreter, for whatever reason, did not like the conduct of the arresting officer(s). The interpreter felt the officer had violated the Deaf person’s rights and walked out of the assignment. Imagine what the officer’s perception is at that moment. How will they question the person they have arrested? Most likely, they will try to use written communication. The interpreter’s conduct may be considered permission to conduct questioning without a sign language interpreter present. What recourse does the Deaf person have once the interpreter has walked out? They may, without a complete understanding of the risks involved, permit questioning/communication via written means if that appears to be their only option. In this  circumstance, it is highly likely that the Deaf party’s lawyer would file a motion to dismiss all charges as the Deaf person was questioned without an interpreter present to facilitate communication. The principle that leads a person to make this kind of decision, that they want to equal the playing field, is understandable, and at the same time, police do lie. These things happen. You saw this last night in Anna Witter-Merithew’s workshop when she talked about many instances of police misconduct. It isn’t nice and it isn’t comfortable, but it is not our duty to make things comfortable.

It’s Not Comfortable

The bottom line is that court is not comfortable for anyone. Whether a person is Deaf or hearing, whether you are an interpreter or even a lawyer, you will sometimes be uncomfortable in the courtroom. The power structure there looms large. If you aren’t a judge, you are always in an inferior position.

Legal norms are unyielding. They dictate who can talk, when they can talk, which topics may be discussed. These norms dictate the conduct of all parties before, during and after the courtroom event. These norms and rules will not change at the request or due to demands from sign language interpreters regardless of our good intentions or our goals.  

What Can We Do?

In light of the fact that legal norms and rules are not going to change for sign language interpreters, what can we do?

I believe it is important for sign language interpreters to start noticing decision points.  Notice when those decision-making opportunities come up and recognize that each decision leads to the next. Each of these points may have consequences down the line. We must evaluate those consequences and their implications. If the consequences of a particular line of decisions are negative, clearly, that is not the decision we want to make. Rather than staying the course, interpreters must transform their decisions-making process.

This leads us back to the question, what can we do?

In a given situation, the goal is to provide a complete, cohesive, well-matched interpretation. Unfortunately, we may not be able to provide support or the means of leveling the playing field and that may be the best I can provide as the sign language interpreter. My best interpretation, however, will never equal the value, skills and contributions of a Deaf interpreter. As a hearing interpreter, my accent is sometimes strong. At other times, it may be less impactful, but I still have an accent. The best case scenario in these situations is for the hearing interpreter, who signs with a non-native accent, to call in a Deaf interpreter who has a native accent in the language.

A Deaf interpreter possesses the skills and innate understanding of the language and Deaf experience which allows them to use language that is most accessible to the Deaf party, to apply expansion of concepts appropriately in order to ensure the communication is clear and accurately conveys the intended meaning.  By ensuring that Deaf interpreters are involved in courtroom interpreting, we reduce the oppressive nature of the environment and we ensure that the support and advocacy needed are available to the Deaf parties involved. In addition to the linguistic expertise a Deaf interpreter brings to the courtroom, they are also often able to navigate the strict conventions and rules of the court. The Deaf interpreter may be able to provide perspectives and explanations regarding the seemingly oppressive court system that will allow the Deaf party to understand the system and its rules more clearly. At the very least, a Deaf interpreter may make navigating the systemic conflicts more palatable.

As we’ve discussed, it is important to begin to notice those decision-making points as well as their implications down the line.  In our evaluation of those points, we are not only looking at the short-term outcome of a single decision. We must also look at the long-term implications and consequences of our actions, even when the immediate decision seems to have a positive outcome. As Trudy Suggs discussed, we are often so accustomed to conducting ourselves in that routine, unconscious manner and forget that our conduct has consequences. We must take the time to consider our behavior. All of our behavior as interpreters needs to be analyzed and evaluated in this manner.  Every action we take as sign language interpreters can be challenged during courtroom interpreting.

Never Stop Caring

So, finally, we come back to the question: Does the concept of “Deaf heart” apply in courtroom settings for sign language interpreters? We are all here to discuss the possibilities, the how and why, and best approaches to incorporating Deaf heart into our interpreting practice. All those things are important and at the same time, we must never lose the care and value we have for the Deaf community and the relationships we have created there.

Thank you so much.


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Sign Language Interpreters: 5 Helpful Tips in Selecting an Attorney

Sign Language Interpreters: 5 Tips for Selecting an AttorneyOne thing sign language interpreters should know when selecting an attorney is that one size generally does not fit all. There are many misconceptions about attorneys. The generic attitude that a good attorney is something akin to a pit bull is problematic for a number of reasons that I will discuss in this post. In addition, I have several tips for identifying the kinds of attorneys that sign language interpreters might need. If you recall, we already discussed a number of legal issues that affect sign language interpreters as independent business people in How Practicing Sign Language Interpreters Protect Against Legal Liability.

TIP #1: Why do You Need an Attorney

Try this. At a dinner party, ask the attorney sitting next to you what they think about the FCC regulations on sign language interpreters working from home, the recent Supreme Court decision distinguishing interpretation from translation, or even something mundane like the HIPAA Business Associate Contract that sign language interpreters must complete to work at a hospital and watch their eyes glaze over and begin the disclaimer: ‘I don’t practice that kind of law.’

Specific Legal Need

The law is very broad. Most lawyers are subject matter specialists in one or only a few areas and in a specific geographical region. The specific legal need will drive the type of attorney that a sign language interpreter needs to consider. Have you been sued or are contemplating suing someone? Have you been charged with a crime? Are you contemplating divorce or adoption? Are you interested in an attorney who will assist you in reviewing and negotiating contracts? Are you in need of an attorney to assist you in setting up a limited liability company (“LLC”)? Are you interested in providing services in other states and need to know the requirements for foreign corporations to do business in those states?  If the sign language interpreter is seeking counsel to set up an LLC, she should not then look for a criminal defense attorney.

Locate an Attorney

Once the legal need is determined, then the search can be narrowed. I recommend using Martindale Hubble. Martindale is primarily used by attorneys to locate other attorneys for referrals or to assess opposing counsel; however, the public can search for attorneys by location and practice area. In addition, Martindale employs a peer rating system to give the user a general idea of the quality of the attorney. When you have identified an attorney, for example, to set up the sign language interpreter’s LLC, then call and ask for an initial conference or telephone interview. Most attorneys will sit down with prospective clients for a half hour or so without charge.

TIP #2:  Win-loss Records Don’t Apply

In speaking with the attorney, you should get an idea of their expertise by asking the right questions. Do not ask ‘what is your win-loss record’ because there is no such thing. The fact is that 99 percent of all cases are resolved without a trial whether it by way of an agreed upon settlement or a guilty plea in the criminal context. A guilty plea is always a win for the government, but it also may represent a very good outcome for the defendant. A civil settlement is an agreement by the parties to forego litigation in return for each giving up something and each getting something they want. In the end, no one ‘won’ yet the result may be completely satisfactory to both sides.

The Right Questions

Ask the attorney, Have you set up LLCs in the past? How many? When was the last time? Have you ever set up an LLC for an individual service provider? What other types of companies have you set up? Have you ever taken continuing legal education courses in establishing LLCs? Have you assisted small businesses in navigating the state licensing and regulatory arenas? If your attorney has only set up one or two LLCs and it has been a number of years since then, it might not be the best fit. The law changes regularly and it is important to maintain current awareness of the changes. If the attorney’s awareness is not current, again it might not be the best fit.

TIP #3:  Don’t Expect Your Lawyer to be Your CPA

Sign language interpreters, as small business owners, need competent tax advice. There are taxation implications in most areas of the law such as opening a business, writing a will, and getting divorced. Most general practitioners can give general advice on the tax code for those areas in which they specialize. However, for more in depth treatment, the wise sign language interpreter should seek advice from a specialist in taxation.

TIP #4:  If You Want a Pit Bull, go to the SPCA

If you are being sued, say for violating the provisions of a non-compete clause in a state where those are valid, you need a litigator. Many clients think that an aggressive lawyer is a competent lawyer: nothing could be further from the truth. Litigators who fight, delay and who ‘papers the other side’ with motions are simply running up your bill.

After nearly 20 years litigating, I can confidently state that an aggressive lawyer is simply an expensive lawyer.

A good litigator is a good communicator, one who can develop a rapport not only with the client but also with opposing counsel in order to facilitate a reasonable resolution to the issue. Trust and a good rapport with the client is critical so that the client understands the reason why costly legal research and motions practice needs to be undertaken and when it needs to be taken.

TIP #5:  The Attorney Client Relationship Should be Like a Good Marriage

The attorney client relationship should be built on trust not fear or resentment. The sign language interpreter should interview enough lawyers and select someone who also fits their personality type. For sign language interpreters, the relationship typically will be ongoing (assuming you do not get sued often) and it will be based on specific transactions such as setting up the initial corporate structure, reviewing contracts, negotiating terms in your behalf, and possibly assisting with licensing and regulatory issues. In sum, the sign language interpreter should enter the relationship knowing why an attorney is necessary, knowing the questions to ask to determine if the attorney is a good fit, and knowing the specific practice and geographical areas in which the attorney is competent.


When interviewing to identify the attorney that will serve you best, remember one size doesn’t fit all. Engage specific attorneys for specific situations. Ask the right questions. Attorneys aren’t CPA’s, unless they are. An aggressive lawyer is an expensive lawyer. Trust and rapport building skills are core competencies you need. Always make sure you and your attorney are a good fit.


As always, this post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Access to this post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser.

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How Practicing Sign Language Interpreters Protect Against Legal Liability

Carla Mathers

As we have seen from the discussion of whether sign language interpreters are complicit in the statutory bargain with the devil, interpreters are in a practice profession in which trust, reliability and heart are important attributes. While these characteristics might seem at odds with the concept of running an interpreting practice, there are a number of important considerations for sign language interpreters to weigh when thinking about how best to protect themselves as practitioners. While each state varies in their regulatory environment for small businesses, and this post does not purport to offer legal advice, several general questions should be thought through in establishing and running a practice.

What Risks do I Face?

All businesses face risk of one type or another. Simply stated, risk is the probability of an event happening and an understanding of the event’s consequences. The insurance industry exists to help people minimize the effect of the unforeseen event. There are different types of insurance which should be considered by sign language interpreters. Other than the obvious, health insurance, sign language interpreters most often question whether they need professional indemnity insurance. An interpreter can be sued for malpractice if they undertake an assignment and do not follow the standard of care in performing that assignment. If this breach of the standard of care causes damages to any of the parties, the interpreter can be liable. Professional indemnity insurance covers you in case a judgment is awarded against you.

However, a judgment is not the only risk involved in a professional liability claim. An interpreter should ensure that their legal expenses are covered and this is typically a different policy which covers the litigation costs when either initiating a suit or defending a suit. These are the costs that can truly be devastating to any small business.

Further, it is important to think about what would happen to you and your practice if there were an interruption of your business because of a catastrophic illness or national disaster. Various types of insurance are available such as income protection insurance in the event of illness and business interruption insurance in the case of a disaster which prohibits you from doing business and the resulting loss of income.

Mandatory Reporter

Finally, sign language interpreters working in any setting around children need to know whether they are considered mandatory reporters under the state in which they are working. While all states have laws regarding mandatory reporting, according to the Federal Administration for Families and Children, “[a]pproximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children.” While sign language interpreters might think this only applies to educational interpreters, some states require reporting from mental health professionals, law enforcement, court appointed special advocates, members of the clergy and domestic violence workers. New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report suspected neglect and abuse regardless of profession. Because sign language interpreters, at times, have a somewhat rigid view of their confidentiality mandate, a review of the relevant legal authority in the state in which one works is strongly suggested. A state by state statutory chart is available here and would be a good place to find the statutes applicable in your state(s) of practice.

Do I Need to Incorporate?

The most common forms of business are the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and S corporation and the Limited Liability Company.

Sole Proprietorship

Most sign language interpreters probably function as a sole proprietorship. A sole proprietor is someone who owns an unincorporated business by himself or herself. This form of business organization has many advantages. It is the simplest form of organization because there are no set up costs, no complicated bookkeeping and no separate tax return to be filed for the proprietorship. The income is attributed to the individual and the business expenses are tallied on the individual’s tax return. The dangers of a sole proprietorship derive primarily from the liability of the owner for any of the proprietorship’s debts, including legal judgments.

Limited Liability Company

Another option is the Limited Liability Company, (“LLC”). An LLC is the least complicated and has several advantages. According to the IRS, “A Limited Liability Company is a business structure allowed by state statute. LLCs are popular because, similar to a corporation, owners have limited personal liability for the debts and actions of the LLC. Other features of LLCs are more like a partnership, providing management flexibility and the benefit of pass-through taxation.”

Hence, the LLC’s income is passed through to the individual owner and taxes are paid in the normal course as an individual. The major advantage to the LLC is that liability for the corporate debts, including legal judgments, is limited. The federal government does not recognize an LLC as a classification for federal tax purposes. An LLC business entity must file a corporation, partnership or sole proprietorship tax return.


The S and C corporations are more complicated and involve significantly more paperwork and accounting requirements. There may also be state imposed fees annually to maintain the corporation in good standing. Separate tax returns are filed for the corporations and employment taxes must be paid for employees of the corporation. The major advantage is that the owner is not liable for the debts of the corporation, though the downside is that there is double taxation: the corporation must pay taxes on its earnings, and the owner pays taxes on his or her wages.

Again, according to the experts at the IRS, “S corporations are corporations that elect to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credit through to their shareholders for federal tax purposes. Shareholders of S corporations report the flow-through of income and losses on their personal tax returns and are assessed tax at their individual income tax rates. This allows S corporations to avoid double taxation on the corporate income. S corporations are responsible for tax on certain built-in gains and passive income.”

Traditional corporations are called C corporations. The IRS explains, “[i]n forming a corporation, prospective shareholders exchange money, property, or both, for the corporation’s capital stock. A corporation generally takes the same deductions as a sole proprietorship to figure its taxable income. A corporation can also take special deductions. For federal income tax purposes, a C corporation is recognized as a separate taxpaying entity. A corporation conducts business, realizes net income or loss, pays taxes and distributes profits to shareholders. The profit of a corporation is taxed to the corporation when earned, and then is taxed to the shareholders when distributed as dividends. This creates a double tax. The corporation does not get a tax deduction when it distributes dividends to shareholders. Shareholders cannot deduct any loss of the corporation.”

Employer Identification Number

One of the corporate actions that is beneficial to sign language interpreters, even to sole practitioners, is to obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number (“FEIN”) which can be used on tax returns, contracts, responses to requests for proposals and invoices and which protects the interpreter from having to supply a social security number on these items. A FEIN can be obtained from the IRS website.

Speaking of taxes, as private practitioner, the interpreter should file estimated taxes quarterly on the 15th of January, April, June and September annually. If you are not well schooled in tax preparation, it is a good idea to retain a CPA to assist you in ensuring that your taxes are filed properly.

What Else Should I know?

It is helpful to make sure you obtain contracts for interpreting services in writing. Among other things, those contracts should indicate that you are an independent contractor and not an employee of the hiring entity. Contracts should list your terms or conditions of working, and be tailored to each client and each assignment. Contracts should be read carefully and if particularly complex, the interpreter should consider retaining legal counsel to review and to advise on the documents. Speaking of documents, you should maintain organized business files and keep your records at least seven (7) years.

In some states, you must register to do business if you offer services in the state. In others, sign language interpreters are regulated by a state entity and more defined licensing as an interpreter is required. If you are in a state with a commission, you should consult with its staff on your licensing and registration requirements. In other states, you should contact the executive branch agency responsible for licensing and regulations to determine whether you need a business license or whether you need to register your trade name if you are using a fictitious business name.

There are several good books out there for organizing and running an interpreting practice. I would recommend Tammera J. Richards’ book, Establishing a Freelance Interpretation Business: Professional Guidance for Sign Language Interpreters, currently in its 3rd edition. More information can be obtained at her website.


This post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.  Access to this post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser.