Language Is a Lawyer’s Main Tool: Inside Finnish Law Firm Castrén & Snellman

After taking a look at how legal translation is run in Russia, we go west through the snow forests and across the border into Finland.

It has been well over a decade since Marjukka Lehtinen joined Castrén & Snellman Attorneys. Lehtinen started at the 128-year-old Helsinki-based firm as an assistant to a partner who regularly used four languages in his work.

She soon noticed translations were in constant demand at the firm and suggested they “combine linguistic resources in a dedicated internal service,” according to Lehtinen, who has always liked languages and found studying English translation at university a natural fit.

Today, she is the Translation Service Manager at Castrén & Snellman, where translation volumes vary year to year, from “a 140-character tweet to a 140-page court decision,” Lehtinen tells Slator. She adds, “We tend to keep an eye on the hours we spend doing translation work rather than on the volumes we translate,” because work at a law firm is typically measured by the hour.

“The demand for Finnish translations is very high. Our foreign clients request Finnish versions of their terms and conditions and model documents”―Marjukka Lehtinen, Translation Service Manager at Castrén & Snellman

Translation work at the firm either contributes toward content production for the Castrén & Snellman communications department (blogs, news releases, social media posts) or document translation, which spans all facets of business law: contracts, writs, petitions, court decisions, merger notifications, listing prospectuses, and so on.

And because they are Helsinki-based, the main language pair is English and Finnish, “which accounts for about 90% of our translation workload,” Lehtinen says. Also in “active demand” is Swedish, and they work with German and French as well. As for the firm’s Russian subsidiaries in St Petersburg and Moscow, these offices handle most of the translation work between Russian and English.

“The demand for Finnish translations is very high; for example, there is a steady flow from our foreign clients requesting Finnish versions of their terms and conditions and model documents,” Lehtinen says, adding that, at Castrén & Snellman, nearly everyone “deals with translation issues to some extent.”

Grammar, semantics, rhetoric

Since Castrén & Snellman’s work on international assignments is extensive, that means nearly all staff must be fluent in languages and able to translate. Lehtinen notes that, in their early career stages, many of the firm’s lawyers “translate a lot.”

Marjukka Lehtinen
Marjukka Lehtinen

“Language is the main tool lawyers use in their work,” Lehtinen explains, “and they are extremely attentive to grammar, semantics, and rhetoric. I cannot help but admire their linguistic skills.”

She tells us the firm’s translation team still handles the bulk of translation work though, while providing terminological and stylistic advice to the rest of the staff.

Lehtinen manages the Helsinki translation team comprising four linguists and says they also benefit from professional linguists within the firm who perform translations alongside their main tasks.

Asked if they outsource translations, she replies that while they handle most client translations in-house, when they do outsource they choose a language service provider that can deliver expertise in the field plus a quick turnaround time.

“Sometimes an individual freelancer is the best option, sometimes a large translation agency,” says Lehtinen, who adds the firm’s Russian offices use their own local LSPs. Whatever the case, all translation work for a client is invoiced to that client.

“How long will it take for machine translations to be skilled enough to master legal argumentation and replace human translators?”―Marjukka Lehtinen, Translation Service Manager at Castrén & Snellman

About whether legal translation varies by the country, Castrén & Snellman’s Translation Service Manager says she believes legal translation is the same the world over: labor-intensive and requiring the human touch. She points to the recent trend of Finnish law firms hiring an increasing number of in-house translators and says she looks forward to welcoming even more colleagues to the field.

Lehtinen, who uses the firm’s current CAT tool of choice, SDL Trados, says she is nonetheless excited at the prospect of technology, such as digitization, opening up more opportunities. But she asks, “How long will it take for machine translations to be skilled enough to master legal argumentation and replace human translators?”

Lehtinen concludes, “Although machine translation is developing at a rapid pace, legal translation will probably still be done by human translators in Finland for a long time. The Finnish language with its unique syntax poses interesting challenges to machine translation.”