The ability to Speak Spanish makes Burke Johnson a more Effective Mediator

By Jamie Miles

A raven-haired woman whispered in her husband’s ear. He lowered his head, looked in her brown eyes and gave her hand a squeeze. The couple stood against the wall of a large bustling Atlanta office while lawyers, court reporters, men and women dressed in suits and silk blouses and ties stream to and fro.

It’s not unusual for parties involved in litigation to feel uncomfortable when walking into mediation. Having English as a second language only intensifies the anxiety.

Mediator Burke Johnson can ease Spanish-to-English communication issues that arise in the mediation process. “It’s stressful enough to be involved in litigation when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Then add to that you can’t speak the language.” A life-long student of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, Johnson has seen the difference communicating in someone’s native language to a can make in mediation. “For any plaintiff, the most important thing a mediator can do is to put them at ease.”

Recently Johnson arrived at a mediation and saw a couple not unlike the one described above.  He was able to greet them and make them feel comfortable even before their attorney arrived.  Afterwards, the lawyer mentioned how much that meant to the plaintiff’s wife throughout the entire process.

With Spanish speaking parties, he is able to build a relationship and trust. At times, a mediator has to deliver challenging news to the plaintiff and their counsel. If the mediator has built up a level of trust, these reality checks are less likely to be perceived as an attack.
Johnson studied Spanish in high school and in college at Emory University. After graduating from University of Georgia School of Law, his interest in Spanish language only increased. About 15 years ago, he traveled to a remote area of Guatemala to a little village with a Spanish language school as a source of income for the community. The program lasted for two weeks and included living with a family in the town. Johnson laughed that two weeks was about as long as he could take off from a law practice. During his stay, Johnson did nothing but speak Spanish and laughed by the end of his stay, he was dreaming in Spanish.

Even after his complete immersion experience in Guatemala, Johnson admitted, “if you don’t use it – you lose it.” He has friends who are native speakers – one from Puerto Rico and another from Mexico. “We get together for a couple of hours and talk. If I don’t practice speaking on a regular basis, I find myself forgetting it.”

Georgia’s Hispanic population, along with that of Atlanta has boomed in the last 25 years. Johnson recalled as a college student in the 1980s finding Hispanic media outlets even the metro area was hard. Mundo Hispanico was the one paper. Now there are Spanish radio stations all over the state to service the booming Hispanic community. There is a large population of migrant workers in South Georgia. Up in the northwest part of the state, a large Spanish speaking community works in the Dalton carpet mills. Then in Northeast Georgia, based, there is a growing Hispanic population associated with the poultry industry.

Reflecting on this ever-increasing demographic, Johnson said, “They are just like anybody else. They get in car wrecks – and slip and fall in grocery stores.”

For over 25 years, Johnson has extensive experience litigating everything from fender bender to multi-party, multi-million dollar litigation in both insurance and personal injury law. He has been working as a neutral for the last three years and regularly finds his Spanish language skills an invaluable tool in his mediation practice.