Teaching Legal English

Teaching legal English? You need some authority!

Do you have Authority in your legal English class?

Walking into a legal English lesson in a language school or in-company is a daunting experience, especially if you don’t haven’t taught much legal English. However, amongst all of the other things that you have to think about – lesson plan, activities, timing, etc one of the most important things is to build an effective teacher-student relationship. Within the context of legal English, this comes down to building authority in the classroom.

What is authority in a classroom?

In short, authority is not about control of your classroom, it’s about your knowledge of teaching legal English, how you communicate that knowledge, and how good you are perceived to be as a legal English teacher. Having authority allows the students to actually trust the teacher and have faith in the teacher, to help them improve their legal English language skills. In legal English, this authority is hard-won.

In other teaching-English areas, authority might be won by the mere fact that you are: an English teacher, or a native, or you represent a reputable school. In legal English, authority is gained by:

  • avoiding legal English mistakes,
  • being able to defend what you teach, and
  • providing value to the student.

Why is authority important in legal English?

Authority is ever-present in the world of law (and therefore legal English) and it is based on the idea of hierarchy in law.

In law, if a higher authority says ‘X=X’, in most cases everyone down the line of hierarchy accepts ‘X=X’. Generally speaking, only someone at the same level of hierarchy can change the rule – this is pretty much how court systems around the world operate. It is also how law firms operate. As a general rule, if a partner says ‘X=X’, a young lawyer accepts this.

In teaching legal English, you are expected to be an authority. Please note this subtlety. You do not have to be an actual authority, your students simply want you to be an authority. In other words, if you don’t give your students a reason to suspect you don’t know legal English, you should be fine.

How to have authority in your classroom.

There are some subjective factors that might automatically give you authority e.g. your age (the older the better), and your appearance (professional, in a suit/smart-business casual).

There are some objective factors that will earn you authority e.g. have some real business/legal experience, have some real in-company business/legal teaching experience, are an author/blogger about teaching/legal issues, and represent a respected language school.

If you don’t have the above (can anyone?), then you have to build authority in your classes.

How do you build authority in legal English?

There are two ways to do this:

Provide value in your teaching.

In this blog post, I go into a little bit of detail about legal English students. They are determined, hungry and see legal English lessons as something which will add value to their careers. Your legal English teaching has to meet this goal – it has to help them progress their careers. Learning a list of legal English prepositions will not achieve this. Learning a list of prepositions in a legal context and identifying the problems that the misuse of legal prepositions cause will achieve this.

Avoid showing that your legal English does not provide value.

There are many ways you can show a legal English student that your lessons are a waste of time: making legal English errors, not knowing legal English conventions, not knowing anything about the area of law you’re talking about, not understanding their business, working out of a textbook, or not providing any legal / business context. All of these things (and more) do not add value to the student, and therefore will not build your authority in the classroom. You will just be ‘another teacher’ with falling class attendances.

Is it easy to build authority?

No. It’s not. Even when you have some subjective or objective authority, legal English students are notoriously unwilling to trust you or accept what you’re teaching. It’s incredibly hard to add value to a legal English student, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Once you do manage to establish authority, then your life becomes marginally easier – now all you have to do is keep that authority!

Anecdotally, even though I’ve been teaching legal English for close to a decade, with all the authority I’m supposed to have, each new student I work with still regards me with extreme suspicion and I have to win that authority all over again (if I’m lucky)!

In summary, building authority is something that you have to learn as a legal English teacher. It involves trial and error, patience, and practice. It is achievable, but understand that it takes a lot of hard work to get a legal English student to place their trust in you.

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One thought on “Teaching legal English? You need some authority!

  1. Well done to the author. Such a article.

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