Teaching Legal English

Teach Legal English: How to teach your legal English students   

Can you identify which type of legal English student you have?

Teaching legal English students is a difficult thing to do. Luckily for you, I’ve identified the four most common groups of legal English students. Each group has its own goals for studying legal English, and to meet these goals, you’ll have to adapt your teaching approach. There is no one-size-fits all approach to teaching legal English and if you think there is, you’ll quickly lose students. To avoid the ‘second-semester drop-off’, the advice below should help you get your teaching in the right area and keep your students across the year.

For each group, there are some general headings – who are they, what to teach them, whether to use a textbook or not, and the reasons for that.

Group 1: Legal English students who want to study law at university.

Who are they? 16-19 years old, C1/C2, normally taught in a group.

What to teach? Legal English vocab in general legal contexts, general legal English topics, communication using legal terminology following the language patterns presented in a textbook, related ‘real-world’ stories connected to textbook topics.

Use a textbook? Yes. A legal textbook e.g. something like ILEC, TOLES etc clearly sets out vocabulary, reading, and other tasks. The textbook provides for structured learning, although it is worth supplementing with other materials. These other materials might include stories from the BBC news pages, Reuters, the Law Gazette, the Lawyer etc. I would be careful about using the FT or the economist as they use lots of idiomatic language and are quite wordy. These are not language skills we should be encouraging young lawyers-to-be to use.

Why? Students need to build awareness of what legal English is, and how it is used in practice (within a ‘newsy’ context is fine at this point). The students have little idea of which English skills are needed in practice, and have no idea of real legal business contexts. So general contexts, as presented in coursebooks / the news, will do.

Group 2: Legal English students who are studying law at university

Who are they? 18-24 years old, C1/C2, normally taught in a group.

What to teach? Legal English vocab in a proper legal context, both practising and identifying/correcting mistakes. Start teaching legal English in common law-firm contexts e.g. what’s required in a law firm: memo writing (following IRAC, CRAC, CREAC rules), letter writing, email writing, linking devices, and language to support arguments in writing.

Use a textbook? Yes, but not to rely on. Think of a textbook as a supplementary training resource to ensure vocab is known (or if not known, learnt).

Why? In terms of legal language, students have already been exposed to the academic legal world and now have got a much better idea of what L1 legal language looks like. They have a better idea of legal concepts, have studied numerous law modules, and now can relate this knowledge much more specifically to legal English. They will be able to see the differences in approach between legal systems (continental v common), and in fields of practice (e.g. financial law, corporate law etc).

By now, the students will now know that writing is the most important English language skill they have, and have built up an impressive vocabulary of legal English. However, it might be the case that they won’t be able to apply that vocabulary to legal writing in a way that makes much sense. This is why practicing this legal English within a specific task (e.g. memo writing) allows legal English standards to be practiced (IRAC, CRAC etc), and also allows the students to practice building persuasive arguments in English (e.g. linking devices, language to support arguments etc).

Group 3: Legal English students who have graduated/are about to graduate from law, and are training to be qualified lawyers.

Who are they? 23-26 years old, C1/C2, normally taught one-to-one (although group classes might be arranged in-house e.g. classes for trainees or young lawyers)

What to teach? At this point, the focus should firmly be on writing, improving writing skills, identifying errors in writing, and understanding the impact different forms of writing can have on different audiences. Reading, vocab learning and speaking still have their place in the teaching plan, but only in terms of a context which might support writing development (e.g. reading a legal problem – reading skills, being able to propose a legal solution in a meeting or on the phone  – speaking skills, and then writing this explanation in the form of a memo – writing skills).

Use a textbook? Only as support for specific areas of vocab.

Why? These students are extremely knowledgeable university students. They have a wide knowledge of legal English terms. Some have done / are doing internships at law firms. Some have started work in a law firm alongside studying at university. They are now applying academic knowledge in practice. They have covered all basic areas of law, and have a refined awareness of the differences between legal systems. They now can observe peers and the world of law, and realise what English skills they need. However, in practice they are generally kept away from client contact – only contacting the client as support for the legal mandate undertaken, not to lead the client relationship. This is why speaking skills are not a focus at this point.

Group 4: Legal English students who are qualified lawyers.

Who are they? 25+ years old, B1-C2, almost exclusively one-to-one teaching

What to teach? The teacher should conduct a needs analysis and initial language competency analysis with the student to identify areas to improve. Ideally (although this might not be possible without signing a non-disclosure agreement/confidentiality agreement), the best way thing would be to work with the lawyer’s texts to identify language errors, or listening in on phone calls to identify spoken errors.

At this point, your teaching should fully understand the business of law, and how law firms compete. Therefore, the client and the aim of client retention should be a rationale for improving a wide range of English skills. The areas of English that you hope to improve should aim to build or develop the lawyer-client relationship.

The more senior a lawyer gets, the closer they get to the client. From that point of view, you should introduce soft skills (negotiation, networking, dispute management, presenting etc) bearing in mind the appropriate contexts the lawyer might be exposed to.

Use a textbook? No. Teaching resources should be wide and varied ranging across law, business, general English etc. Resources should also include practicing soft skills.

Why? Only an individualised approach here makes sense. Following a textbook would be a waste of time (unless the lawyer is B1-B2) and would not meet your student’s expectations. The lawyer has had years of education, practice, and experience in law. If you show that you have no authority as a legal English teacher,  you might lose your student quickly. On top of that, many errors could be cemented over time, and many errors could be learnt from peers in law (especially when it comes to legal writing). Change doesn’t come easily, nor is change easily accepted, so be prepared to support your arguments or decisions with some form of science/research e.g. your credentials, academic studies, current peer practice etc.

Conclusion

Hopefully the above will give you an idea of what your legal English student might be expecting, and therefore what you can do in your legal English lessons. Certainly, teaching a senior lawyer with a textbook is a bad idea, and teaching networking skills to 16 year old is the wrong focus. By matching the correct legal English teaching with the correct student will allow you to avoid frustration for both sides and allow the teacher-student relation to develop.

Please remember I created the above based on my experience of working in language schools / in-house over the last 10 years. There may be some people who don’t quite fit the groupings (students with lower language skills than the norm, or professionals studying legal English ‘out of interest’ being two examples), but you should be able to use one of the above groups to give you an idea of what to do.

As always, if you have any comments, please feel free to leave them below 🙂

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