Teaching Legal English

How do you teach Legal English? Help for new legal English teachers

The key to teaching legal English is avoiding these 5 mistakes!

Have you ever been asked to teach a legal English lesson at short notice? Have you ever taught legal English before? Are you unsure about what legal English actually is? Years ago, when working for the British Council, I was asked to cover a lesson. I had never taught legal English before, and thought I knew what legal English was (after all, I read the news and watch cop dramas all the time). But, my lesson was a disaster. This article goes through my mistakes not only in that lesson, but in the years that I’ve been teaching legal English, and hopefully, will allow you to avoid those same mistakes.

I made 5 main legal English mistakes:

  • Mistake 1: Assume legal English students are ordinary English students
  • Mistake 2: Assume legal English is like other English courses
  • Mistake 3: Assume I know what legal English students want
  • Mistake 4: Not know legal English conventions
  • Mistake 5: Not learning from your mistakes

Mistake 1: Assume legal English students are ordinary English students

Legal English students are not ‘normal’ English students. Firstly, in the British Council, they are C1/C2 students (exceptionally B2, but this was rare). They are generally motivated, hungry, educated and questioning – especially so if they are aged 20-30 and looking for career advancement.

They pay attention, they ask questions on legal English and general English, and they are comfortable with grammar and meta-language. They generally know their stuff, or think that they do – legal English students can be adversarial and they might challenge your knowledge, so make sure you can defend yourself (in terms of explaining your interpretation of English grammar/vocabulary).

If you assume that they are ‘normal’ English students, you’ll quickly find out they’re not, and then you’re playing catch-up in the lesson. More so if you make a language mistake in the first 10 minutes. So be prepared for a different type, a more difficult type, of English student.

Mistake 2: Assume legal English is like other English courses

Legal English is about improving a student’s English knowledge. In this way, legal English is the same as other courses. The important question is: ‘Why do they want to improve their English?’ Here, the answer is different to the answer you would expect from a student on a normal English course. Legal English students improve their English for one main goal – to improve their competitiveness on the legal market. In short, better English = potentially more money/prestige.

Therefore, legal English is not a hobby, it is a career necessity. If you waste their time, they’ll vote with their feet. Second-semester sign-ups are (in my experience) always down on first-semester sign-ups (even when I was teaching legal English with some experience under my belt, there was a reduced attendance for the second semester). You’ll just have to accept this fact.

The point to take away from this mistake is, in your planning, make sure you ask yourself the question ‘how will the students benefit from this lesson?’ And it’s not a bad idea to tell your students exactly how at the beginning of the lesson (This is what we’re going to do today, because …) or at the end (This is what we’ve looked at today, and this is useful because …)

Mistake 3: Assume I know what legal English students want

It’s easy to think: ‘legal English is just legal vocab’ or ‘legal English is just what they say in a cop drama/the news’. But, this approach is the wrong approach. In my experience of having worked in-house for a number of years, legal English is:

  • the correct application of legal language in context,
  • legal writing skills,
  • excellent advanced general English skills, and
  • (later on in a lawyer’s career, not at the beginning) advanced English soft skills.

Now, I know these points are abstract and probably not much help – I’ll go into more detail in other blogs as this area is huge. Let me just give you some general helpful hints:

  • Give your lessons context – use current affairs or current legal discussions. Just presenting a list of vocab will kill everyone with boredom.
  • Give your students a challenge – legal English students are competitive.
  • Get your students to correct things – because of their competitive nature, they like identifying errors (someone else’s, not their own), and correcting them.
  • Make it real – most of a lawyer’s career is spent writing, this is an essential relevant skill that has to be developed. Don’t do huge memos, but short paragraphs, and if you can tie in the competition element above e.g. which re-write is best, then all the better.

Soon, I’ll do a blog on a basic legal English lesson plan that should allow you to put together a reasonable legal English lesson plan in a hurry.

Mistake 4: Not know legal English conventions

There are some legal English conventions which you have to know. Some are in the process of being changed (hopefully), some will remain as they are.

  • No contractions in legal English – don’t, can’t, shouldn’t etc have no place in a legal document
  • Hierarchy is key – legal writing is formal (or at the very least neutral), hierarchies are observed – make sure letters are not written to ‘Jim’ but Mr. Brown etc

The next one is in the process of being changed in the legal English world, but expect resistance from your students if you challenge it.

  • Legalese – you might have to explain or practice the use of legalese in written texts

Your ever-observant legal English students will notice your inability to keep convention and may question it. This shows that you don’t know legal English yourself and this might cause future problems re: your authority as a legal English teacher.

Mistake 5: Not learning from your mistakes

I wasn’t observed in a legal English lesson, and previous legal English teachers were glad not to be teaching legal English, so in general, peer feedback was non-existent. I had to, after some time, think about what I did and how it could be better. Nothing, however, helped as much as gaining experience.

Now, I’m assuming you have limited experience, so what can you learn quickly though self-analysis to improve your legal English lessons?

  1. If you’ve got a legal English class, get to know your students quickly – what they like, don’t like, which people work well together, which like to work alone etc and be flexible to their preferences. Then adapt to these preferences within the framework of your lesson plan. Legal English students are hard to please, being flexible is key to having a full class in the second semester.
  2. If the textbook works (if you have one), use it. If it doesn’t, use it for the language exercises and create your own materials.
  3. Think about which exercises get the best response and stick to them.
  4. Be persistent (especially re: writing). It is a key career skill, and they need to know how to write, so although it can be difficult, persevere.
  5. Don’t give up! At some point, you’re going to have a stinker of a lesson, and your students are going to be unforgiving – legal English students are like this, accept this.

Conclusion – teaching legal English

Teaching legal English is not easy at the beginning and the textbook you might have could be … uninspiring, which isn’t much help. However, the tips I’ve presented above should give you a little bit of background about what legal English is all about and give you some ideas. Stick with it, it gets better with time, and if you love dealing with challenging students, teaching legal English definitely will help you sharpen your English-teaching teeth!

If you have any comments, please leave them below – I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you want to share your experiences about legal English teaching, I’d love to hear those as well 🙂

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