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Bilingual law firm promotes mainstream services

On the corner of southeast Ninth Avenue and Oak Street in Hillsboro, a prominent sign introduces the newest location of the Hillsboro-based Harris Law Firm — in Spanish. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD -  The staff of the Harris Law Firm in Hillsboro at their recently opened bilingual branch. Front row, left to right: Paul Vames, Rob Harris, Veronica Vazquez. Back row: Sarah Freeman, Vianey Diaz Conway and Amy Velazquez.

The phrase “Harris Bufete de Abogados” alerts customers and passersby to the newest branch of one of the city’s largest private law firms. The bilingual office opened its doors for the first time Tuesday to offer something partner Robert Harris has found lacking in the county: A “full slate of legal services” for Spanish-speaking residents.

This “stand-alone, full-service office” will be staffed entirely by paralegals and attorneys fluent in Spanish, Harris says.

Sarah Freeman, a personal injury attorney Harris described as both “bilingual and bicultural” will work from the office full-time, and will be joined by a second full-time attorney within the next two months. Harris’ law partner Amy Velazquez will be in the office one day a week to provide counsel in family law and criminal defense.

“I think there’s a growing need for a bilingual law office, which there really isn’t in Hillsboro,” Harris said, identifying the city as a “commercial center” for the surrounding Spanish-speaking community. “We’re trying to expand to make sure there are (legal resources) for mainly the Spanish-speaking population, or people who would prefer Spanish-speaking (resources),” Harris explained.

Mainstream services

According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, 22.6 percent of Hillsboro’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. It’s well above state average, which is 12 percent, and Washington County’s average, which is 16 percent.

Freeman, who will serve as the new office’s primary attorney and bilingual point-person, grew up in what she described as a bilingual household: for her first 15 years, she split her time between Spain and the United States. She joined the firm at the beginning of the year after running into Harris, who she had known socially, last fall.

“He told me that he had a dream of opening an office that was bilingual and that could provide a range of legal services to Spanish-speaking clients, and I thought that was a great idea,” Freeman said. “And about a week later, I was talking to him about joining the firm.”

Her hope, she said, is to create a range of services available to the Latino community.

According to Harris, the firm aims to go beyond providing bilingual legal counsel in family and personal injury law, and to offer assistance with more than charges of driving under the influence — the primary areas of legal resources which Harris identified as “typically covered in bilingual law offices.”

“More and more Spanish-speakers are buying real estate,” Harris said, “so we want to provide wills, estate-planning, real estate — more mainstream services. We thought, ‘We have a significant number of Spanish clients. Wouldn’t it be nice when they called up our law firm if the first person they spoke to was bilingual, bicultural?’ “

Coordinated offices

Harris’ 27-year law career includes a solo practice and 10 years as a municipal court judge in Hillsboro. He established his general practice firm in 1997, and the firm’s 10 attorneys now represent a wide range of legal expertise, including employment law, divorce, criminal defense, estate planning, family law and immigration law. Because of this, the new bilingual office is poised to provide clients with access to each member of the firm’s specific area of specialization.

“We are going to have a few areas of practice that are well-represented to start off,” Freeman said, “and we are able to connect clients to attorneys who may not be bilingual but who can work with bilingual staff to address other needs that (clients) might have more immediately.”

Harris agreed. “Luckily we have enough attorneys here that we can cover anything. If someone comes in and they need a real estate contract, but the lawyer there isn’t familiar with it, she can get on the phone with me,” he added. “I can quickly do some drafts, save it to a location on her computer — we’re pretty efficient that way.”

The firm is taking advantage of cloud-based technology to enable painless communication between the bilingual office and the firm’s other branches in Hillsboro, Bridgeport Village, Northeast and Southeast Portland. Its internal phone system is integrated online, allowing for easy call transfers, and attorneys are able to work on documents remotely to allow for better collaboration.

A potential client who calls any one of the firm’s offices can easily be redirected to a bilingual attorney.

“A few miles distance doesn’t make a difference to us,” Harris said.



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