French-speaking lawyers find advantages to being bilingual

Decades ago, if a lawyer in south Louisiana didn’t know how to read, write and speak French, there was a limit to the legal work available to him.

Just about everyone spoke the language brought to Louisiana by the Acadians in the late 1700s, after England forced them from their homes in eastern Canada.

“There was a time in Lafayette when the common language on Johnston Street was French, not English,” lawyer John Hernandez Jr. said.

Wills, often written by hand, property deeds and other documents that dealt with the passing of one generation’s goods to the next were in French, and woe to the lawyer who didn’t know the language.

Even the ability to secure the legal work of south Louisiana’s populace depended on speaking the language.

“When I started practicing 40 years ago, it was a necessity to go in the rural communities,” lawyer Warren Perrin said. “You had to be able to speak French or some of the people wouldn’t do business with you.”

Hernandez and Perrin are in the twilight of their careers, and both have seen the number of successions, title transfers and other legal documents in French wane as the older, French-speaking members of the Cajun population die off.

But there still are advantages — including in the international arena — for lawyers who know the language.

Hernandez, Perrin and some 100 other lawyers belong to the Francophone Section of the Louisiana Bar Association, established in 1999.

Francophone Section members attend international conferences with lawyers from the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and also France. One of the conferences, the Judge Allen M. Babineaux International Civil Law Symposium, is named after a Lafayette jurist.

Instead of the focus on probating wills written in French for Louisiana families or performing other work locally, Francophone lawyers now focus on making contacts internationally, where they talk to like-minded and like-speaking lawyers from far away — an international fraternity.

“There’s just this world connection that we have,” Perrin said.

Perrin said the connections lead to all manner of commerce, from legal work to high-dollar economic development.

He said one of his contacts in Quebec called him about locating a high-pressure tank construction company in Louisiana, an inquiry he passed on to the state’s economic development officials.

Hernandez also has benefited from contacts made internationally. Inside and outside his downtown Lafayette office sit stacks of files of legal documents from one job he’s doing: the succession of a rich man born and reared in Lafayette who later moved to Paris.

The man, whom Hernandez would not identify, died in the mid-2000s. It’s a complex case of an individual whose holdings, and family, stretch from Lafayette to Maryland to Paris.

“It shows you how advantageous it is having a bilingual attorney versed in two legal systems,” said Hernandez, whose son, John Hernandez III, spearheaded Francophone efforts before his death in 2012 at age 44.

Though a renaissance of teaching and learning the language started in Louisiana in the 1960s, French as a spoken tongue in Louisiana didn’t always look likely to survive.

“I like to say we had the French beaten out of us,” lawyer Marc Babineaux said.

Children in the early and mid-1900s were prohibited from conversing in French. They often received beatings in school from teachers if they did.

“The emphasis in most families was to erase all semblances of being a Cajun,” Hernandez said.

“You had to work on your diction. You really had to sort of camouflage the fact that you were Cajun,” he said.

In the 1960s, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was started. It has led a slow but steady replenishing of Louisiana’s population of French-speaking residents.

Babineaux, who grew up speaking French at home, said it’s doubtful there will be a day when Louisiana legal deeds are again written in French.

But there’s still a need for bilingual lawyers, he said.

“We’re at an age where we’re still able to have a link with the older people who are not educated in English,” said Babineaux, whose father was the late Judge Babineaux.