Teaching Legal English

Finding it difficult to teach legal English writing in class? Here are some ideas

Writing is essential for lawyers – But how can you teach it? Here are some effective ideas.

Bryan Garner, Editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, said that 90% of a lawyer’s communication is in writing. Therefore, lawyers have to learn and practice this skill, and so do legal English teachers when it comes to teaching it. The question is, how do you practice writing in a legal English class and not kill the class? In this post, I’ll share some of my ideas about how to get ‘Group 1 Legal English students’ (click here for more details) to start writing.

In this post, I’ve chosen Group 1 Legal English students’ for a few reasons:

  • they might not yet understand how important writing is in law,
  • legal English textbooks don’t really encourage writing skills to the level they should,
  • these students will possibly see in-class writing as an annoyance or waste of time, and
  • most legal English teachers will teach Group 1 Legal English students.

In response legal English teachers should:

  1. explain why legal English writing is so important,
  2. supplement the writing tasks with your own short, manageable exercises, and
  3. aim to produce a productive result which supports and links back to A).

The problem with writing tasks.

Generally speaking, all English students hate writing exercises. Teachers hate setting up and marking writing exercises, students hate doing them. Why? It takes time, or rather students and teachers perceive writing exercises as taking time.

Look at some of the writing exercises from ILEC (1st ed).

  • Unit 2: write a letter based on a big reading and ‘signaling phrases’,
  • Unit 3: Write an email based on a huge reading and divide it up into three parts using the vocab presented in unit 3,
  • Unit 4: Write an email based on 5 points found in a big reading task,
  • Etc …

All of these tasks scream “lots of preparation”, “hours of work” and “ensure you understand” at students (and teachers). The response of hating writing exercises is predictable. When I taught ILEC, very few people did the writing homework, and if I forced the issue in class … well, that was an unhappy class: “Come on everybody, today we’ll be writing for 1 hour”. I’m sure you can imagine how successful that was.

The solution.

Do much shorter writing exercises – writing exercises which only take 10-20 minutes or so. These can be:

  • set up with very little preparation,
  • checked in class,
  • done regularly,
  • done so students can get instant feedback (from the teacher and peer feedback),
  • individual, pair or group exercises, and
  • used with a valid legal context.

So, how do you create these exercises? Here are some suggestions:

1) Re-invent the textbook exercises.

If the textbook exercises are too long, then we have to break them down into much smaller manageable portions; writing 1 paragraph is faster than writing 5 or 6 paragraphs. The good news is that most writing tasks in legal English coursebooks are in sections. For example, one writing exercise might have several topics to cover, one might have different sections you have to write, or one might have arguments which have to be created i.e. for and against a topic.

Set up the class in to work individually, in pairs, or in groups, and then divide the question ‘parts’ amongst the class. Each group then writes about their part and then you can put the whole text together. By doing this, you can encourage productive criticism – could this part have been better written? Did it include everything? Could we write it in a different way? Does the document make sense when the separate parts are joined together?

Here, you have to highlight why this is relevant. It’s relevant because law firms often write legal documents in this way e.g. longer memos, due diligences, court/arbitration submissions etc.

What to pay attention to.

It might be that a young lawyer has to adopt the established ‘voice’ in the text, adapt their style of writing, or adapt to the verb-tense ‘context’ (a document doesn’t make much sense if the first part is written in the perfect, the second part in the continuous, the third part in the passive, and the fourth part in the active).

Reviewing the document as a sum of parts also allows the students to play a role as the ‘partner’. Would a partner in a law firm be happy with this? How would the partner introduce changes or add ‘one voice’ to the document i.e. somehow bring all the writing styles together. And if so, which, and how? Similarly, if one group/person writes in one style, the other contributors then have to rewrite their writing to match this style.

An advanced technique would be to match the ‘voice’ of the document to the perceived need of the client. Does the client want action? If so, use the continuous. Does the client want to know about completed actions? If so, use the perfect, and so on.

Correct the textbook.

Another alternative would be to correct the answer which is given. In ILEC, a suggested answer is in the answer key. A teacher might need some experience/authority to do this, but I would propose that most of those answers could be written in different ways.

This approach is good because it relegates the legal context and concentrates on language, style, and correction. Most legal students are not going to be ‘moved’ by the contexts presented in legal English textbooks – students only care about contexts relevant to them. Asking them to write about something they care little about can be like pulling teeth. Hence, asking them to play partner and check a text for accuracy or style creates a more law-office lifelike context.

2) Create your own exercises – aim to correct and improve.

Creating your own writing exercises can be a bad idea. If you don’t know much about law, how law firms work, what a real legal context might be, or even how to keep the discussion on law (it’s very easy to turn a legal English lesson into a current affairs lesson), creating your own writing exercises from scratch can be a minefield. However, there is better way to create a writing exercise with little preparation and keep the legal focus.

Most of your legal English students will have to develop the skill of translating the law of their jurisdiction into English. This is why they need legal English – to explain to a foreigner how the law works in their country. The good news is, this gives you an endless supply of potential resources for writing exercises. In short, for this task your students have to:

  • think about their law,
  • translate it, and
  • redraft it so it makes sense in English.

These are key skills that would-be international lawyers have to develop.

Below are a number of places you can find small texts to do this. And remember, we’re talking small texts i.e. 100-150 words

Why this works.

In many coursebooks, due to the nature of the chapter, the teacher might feel the pressure of having to be a legal expert in that field.

“Hi teacher, what’s the difference between a limited company and a joint-stock partnership?”

With these exercises, it takes the focus off you as the ‘answer book’ or ‘legal expert’. Now, your role as the teacher is not to say, ‘yes, this is correct’ or ‘no, it’s not correct’ because there are no real right or wrong legal answers. Now, your role now is to encourage debate, discussion, and ideas within the area of translating that text. This is a huge weight off your shoulders – now all you have to do is assess the language (very often you can use the same language topic in the coursebooks e.g. legal prepositions/collocation etc) and promote the activity with ideas. ”

“Perhaps it would be better in the active voice?”

“Maybe this should be in the continuous?”

“Would a consumer really understand this? How can you explain that in a different way?”

Use the law.

A lot of statutes can be found online. Find a short statutory provision/a few clauses which might even reflect the topic of the textbook chapter e.g. company law, employment law etc, and get the students to translate it and then refine the translation.

If the law has an official translation into English – critique that as well. Was the students’ translation close to the official translation? Is the official translation good – does it make sense, how can it be redrafted?

Use government websites.

Government policy is always a nightmare to translate and make it intelligible in English. Government policy also generally matches the same chapter topics in your legal English textbook, so use the vocab/language patterns in each chapter when you’re doing these translations.

Use terms and conditions.

Go online and find service providers – banks, electric scooters, trains & buses, starbucks etc. There are plenty of terms and conditions (remember, we’re looking for short clauses/provisions) which can be translated and redrafted. Here, you’ll often find that a company’s English translations of its Ts&Cs are shocking – a brilliant redrafting task for your students.


I hope that my ideas above are useful. In legal practice, a writing task sometimes is quick (a short email to a client), is long (a memo or opinion), is collaborative (a DD, court pleading), so all of these writing tasks have to be practiced. However, it’s obviously not practical to spend one hour in each lesson practising writing skills.

But, what you can do is make writing a much more frequent activity by making the tasks short and relevant, and make this prevalent over the bigger writing tasks.

Ultimately, this will be something you have to encourage and be consistent about. The real context for this is that many English students go through language school without really practicing their writing skills. When they enter the business world, especially the legal world, they then get a short sharp shock about what working life is really like, and how they are unprepared. In applying for a law firm for an internship, it is common for an applicant to have to write a two/three page memo about a legal issue in English. If your legal English students aren’t practicing writing, or writing in length, they are not being prepared for the world of law.

If you have any questions or comments about the above, or would like me to cover any area, please let me know in the comments below.


Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *