Learning Legal English, Teaching Legal English

Should I do the TOLES Legal English exam?

TOLES is the only internationally recognised legal English exam you can do

Up until 2016, there were two legal English exams that you could do. But Cambridge, who provided the International Legal English Exam (ILEC), stopped offering it in 2016 – you can read more about it here.

That leaves the Test of Legal English Skills (TOLES) as the main internationally recognised legal English exam. There are three levels to TOLES: foundation, higher and advanced. You can find out more about TOLES here.

In this post, I’ll try to offer a more balanced opinion on the exam than the usual promotional material that you’ll find on the internet e.g. here,

How I am reviewing the TOLES legal English tests?

As I’ve said many times before, on my YouTube channel and on this website, most of what a lawyer does is write. This is not just me saying this, but legal English doctrine writers most notably Bryan Garner. As a proofreader that has regular exposure to legal texts and having taught people on my course, I can really see the difference it can make to improving legal English communication if a lawyer knows the main principles of plain English, and therefore, good writing. As such, I view all legal English courses and textbooks in light of how they improve your legal writing skills.

1) The basic exams

I’m going to divide the TOLES suite of exams into two parts. The first part is made up of the Foundation and Higher exams that basically you can study for yourself at home with the use of the coursebook (see below). The Advanced exam is different from the other two exams due to its focus on writing. Although there is writing in Foundation and Higher, there’s not much, and it doesn’t really stretch you (some would disagree with me). The Advanced exam is a different animal re: types of questions and difficulty.

The TOLES Coursebook: The Lawyer’s English Language Coursebook.

The Lawyer’s English Language Coursebook is a coursebook that will only prepare you for the Foundation and Higher papers. It is essentially a legal vocabulary book. There are very few writing questions, even fewer (if any at all) that will help you to improve your writing. If you would like to see my (very positive) review The Lawyer’s English Language Coursebook as a vocabulary book, you can do so here as it is a good legal English vocabulary book. But, if you’re looking to use this book to either help you prepare for the Advanced exam or improve your writing – you’ll be disappointed.

The TOLES Foundation Paper

The Foundation paper is the entry-level test for lower-intermediate learners of English (A2, B1). It’s essentially a vocabulary test – here is a list of the type of questions (you can see an example of the test paper for Foundation here).

  • Q1 is a vocabulary odd-one out,
  • Q2 is a vocabulary error identification question,
  • Q3 is a vocabulary (prepositions) question,
  • Q4 is a set of true or false questions (reading comprehension),
  • Q5 is ‘put the conversation in the correct order’ (reading comprehension),
  • Q6 is a vocabulary question,
  • Q7 is a vocabulary question,
  • Q8 is a vocabulary question,
  • Q9 is a vocabulary question, and
  • Q10 is a very basic writing question.

From my point of view – that of improving your writing, this exam is of limited help. I personally believe that learning vocabulary out of the correct context i.e. plain English or a correct model of legal writing, is not a good thing. There is no point learning vocabulary if all you’re going to do with it is use in old-fashioned legal English writing.

However, if you want to take this exam to test your basic English legal vocabulary skills, then I can recommend this exam.

The TOLES Higher Paper

The Higher paper is made up of two parts and it aims towards intermediate to upper-intermediate learners of English (B1, B2). Part 1 is essentially legal a vocabulary and grammar test with a tiny amount of comprehension and writing. Part 2 is a listening test. We won’t look at part 2 in any great detail here as it’s not going to help you write, so let’s see if the Higher paper helps to test your writing skills (you can see an example of the test paper for Higher here).

  • Q1 is a multiple-choice vocabulary question,
  • Q2 is a gap-fill vocabulary question,
  • Q3(A) & (B) are gap-fill vocab questions,
  • Q4 is an error correction question that potentially sends out mixed messages re: plain English,
  • Q5 is a multiple-choice vocabulary (prepositions) question, and
  • Q6 is a writing question in which you write one-word answers or short sentences.

Does the Higher paper help you to improve your legal English writing skills? Only to a very, very limited extent. After all, writing a one-word answer or short sentence is hardly the same as writing a short email or a short memo. So from the point of view of writing skills, this disappoints.

However, this is a harder vocabulary exam than the Foundation paper, and the listening element might be a challenge for some. So, if you want to test your legal English skills against this background, then I can recommend this exam.

2) The advanced exam

The TOLES coursebook: Advanced Legal English

Advanced Legal English was first published in 2018 and is the coursebook for the Advanced paper. It is made up of 60 units that cover many different legal areas e.g. forms of credit, partnerships, contracts, defamation etc. Given that the Advanced paper tests both your vocabulary and writing skills (see below), is this a book that will help you prepare for the exam? In terms of vocabulary – definitely, yes. In fact, if you want to read my review of Advanced Legal English as a vocabulary book, you can do so here. However, in terms of helping you to develop your writing skills, in my opinion, this book is of very limited help. Why?

Out of the 60 units in the book, 3 units specifically look at the issue of plain English or legalese. OK, it is good to have some discussion (albeit brief) of what plain English is or criticise the use of legalese in legal writing and thus point the student towards the goal of the exam. However, the questions the book asks you to do in two of the units actually ask you to use the words you shouldn’t be using to complete the exercises! This seems to me to be a somewhat bizarre backward step.

The book clearly sees the Advanced paper as a vocabulary exam and not a writing exam. Out of the 167 questions in the book, only 3 are writing exercises similar to Q59 in the exam. For those questions, a suggested answer is given, but there’s no explanation about why that answer is a good answer. In the context of self-study, this is of no help whatsoever. There are approx. 9 other questions that could be framed as writing questions, but this isn’t suggested in the coursebook and it would only be for a teacher to say “let’s make a writing exercise out of this” to get students to practice writing. The theory of ‘speaking doesn’t help your writing, but writing helps your speaking’ seems to be have been overlooked.

On the plus side, as a vocab book, there probably is no better out there on the market. But that’s all it is – just a very good vocab book.

The TOLES Advanced Paper

The Advanced paper is definitely for advanced learners of English (C1+).  This is a difficult paper, using complex vocabulary and structures and difficult questions. There are still more vocabulary questions than writing questions, but the writing questions are more demanding and will take up more of the 2 hours that you are given (ou can find a link to a sample Advanced paper here).

  • Q1-10 are multiple-choice vocabulary questions (30 pts),
  • Q11-20 are gap-fill vocabulary questions (30 pts),
  • Q21-22 are short writing questions which ask you to give a plain English definition of a piece of legal vocabulary (40 pts),
  • Q23-32 are vocabulary questions (30 pts),
  • Q33-42 are vocabulary (prepositions) questions (30 pts),
  • Q43 is an error correction question that focuses on vocabulary (with quite complex instructions) (60 pts),
  • Q44-53 are word-formation vocabulary questions (30 pts),
  • Q54-58 are vocabulary questions in which you’re asked to explain idioms (15 pts), and
  • Q59 is a writing question in which you have to write plain English explanations of legal English texts (75 pts).

Looking at the above questions, Qs 21, 22 and 59 ask you to use your plain English drafting skills, with Q59 being the most difficult. So does it test your writing skills? Yes. Does it test them enough? Not in my opinion.

The Advanced exam is still, mostly, a vocabulary exam. This is also supported by the way the points are distributed. In total there are 340 points. The main writing questions that test your plain English skills are Qs 21-22 (40 pts) and Q59 (75 pts). This is 115 pts out of 340pts – approx 34% of the points for questions that will inevitably take you the most amount of time to complete. Unless there is some ‘weighting’ that happens to make these 70 pts more significant, then it suggests to me that the focus (given than I’m looking at this from the point of view of improving your legal English writing) is wrong – vocabulary points are more important than writing points. Therefore, from the point of view of writing, I think the exam could be better.

However, this is a very difficult vocabulary exam. It is a real test of your knowledge and application of legal English vocab and if you’re looking to challenge yourself and you’re not so focused on the writing side of things, this is an exam I can recommend.

A quick comparison of the exams:

FoundationHigherAdvanced
Time1.5 hours1.5 hours & approx. 30 minutes (listening)2 hours
English levelLower-intermediateIntermediate to upper-intermediateAdvanced
Listening question?NoYesNo
Main types of questionsVocab, grammar, minimal writingVocab, comprehension, small amount of writingVocab, writing
Can I study it at home?It is possibleIt is possibleIt would be really difficult/impossible
Will it help improve your legal writing skills re: plan English?Not in my opinionNot in my opinionPotentially, yes

Should you do the TOLES Advanced exam?

There are two ways to look at this exam. If you’re looking to do a tough legal English vocabulary/grammar exam, then you’ll probably find no harder than the TOLES Advanced exam.

However, if you’re looking to improve your writing skills and depend on the course to improve your writing skills, that largely depends on who your teacher is and the faith you place in the exam in terms of a benchmark to show off your writing skills. Let me explain in the context of looking at some obvious reasons for doing the exam, and perhaps some other issues you should consider.

Why you should do the exam:

The basic reasons for doing the exam are below.

  • It is an internationally recognised legal English Exam,
  • You get a certificate,
  • The advanced exam is very difficult and is a real test of your legal vocabulary knowledge and legal writing skills,
  • You will become aware of the concept of plain English, and the general message that you should simplify your legal writing,
  • The exam actively tries to tell you to avoid old-fashioned legal writing and marks you on your ability to understand it and explain it in a different way, and
  • You will learn new vocabulary.

Possible reasons that the exam is not for you:

  • There’s no explicit guidance about how to improve your writing

This is a problem for the student (what is good writing, how can I ‘do’ good writing, what’s the difference between good writing and bad? etc) and the teacher (how do I teach good writing, are there any rules, are these rules standardized, what exactly does TOLES want so I can prepare my student? etc).

Without clear guidance from TOLES, it makes preparing for and teaching the TOLES Advanced extremely difficult.

  • It’s difficult to choose the right school/teacher.

Because of the above, the student has to make sure that the teacher or school has (as a minimum):

    • experience teaching the TOLES exam,
    • a proven track record,
    • a good understanding of what plain English really is, and
    • a good understanding of where a student’s starting position is (re: knowledge of English) before starting preparation.

This information is very difficult to find, especially if schools are offering the same course at two ends of the price spectrum.

  • You don’t know how the exam is marked

Not only is there an absence of guidelines other than ‘to write in plain English style’, but, as far as I’m aware, you don’t get a breakdown of your score per question – you just get an overall score. If you want to find out how you did in the writing question – you can’t. Want to know how well you did in the vocab questions – nope, not that either.

  • You can’t fail the exam at Advanced level

You get a certificate irrespective of your score. The certificate is ‘banded’ depending on the level you achieved, but you still get a certificate. In my opinion, the fear of failing an exam is more of a motivation than getting a certificate with a poor level on it.

  • It does not place enough emphasis on writing

Most of what a lawyer does is write. Therefore, this should be the thing that is tested if the exam is meant to be close to working in a law firm. There will be people who will disagree with me, but simply learning vocab does not make you a good writer. Being able to use that vocab bearing in mind your reader’s needs is the most important thing.

Conclusion

The inevitable conclusion has to be that it’s up to you to decide if you think you need to do this exam or not. In making that decision, you’ll have to balance the pros and cons and how they relate to your legal market re: employment of lawyers. In my opinion, TOLES Advanced is a tough vocab exam, the toughest in fact – much harder than the ILEC. But is it a legal writing exam? Is this important? These are questions left to you.

In any case, I hope the discussion above will help you to make a more informed decision; so, with all of that being said, it’s up to you 🙂

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