Learning Legal English

How do I learn legal English? Don’t make these mistakes.

Want to learn legal English? Here are 8 mistakes to avoid.

Making the decision to learn legal English will allow you to better understand an area of English that is difficult for native speakers to understand, nevermind non-natives. As such, there’s lots of information for both natives and non-natives about how to understand the legal language ‘legalese’ ranging from ‘helpful’ comments on forums to other ‘useful’ pieces of advice on blogs. However, as well-intentioned as this advice might be, there is a lot of bad advice out there. So bad, that I call them mistakes. In this post, I’ll tell you the 8 mistakes to avoid if you want to learn legal English. If you are making one of the mistakes I’ve listed below, I’ve suggested how you should learn legal English in a better way.

  1. Don’t ‘just’ learn legal vocabulary
  2. Don’t ‘just’ learn fixed phrases or legal collocations
  3. Don’t ‘just’ read
  4. Don’t ‘just’ read court judgements
  5. Don’t ‘just’ read or watch crime books or dramas
  6. Don’t do things in the wrong order
  7. Don’t assume all legal English books are the same
  8. Don’t think that learning legal English is quick or easy

Let’s investigate those in more detail.

1. Don’t ‘just’ learn legal vocabulary

A fundamental mistake that many learners make when it comes to legal English = legal English vocabulary. If we consider legal English to be a type of ‘language’ as many believe ‘legalese’ to be (see my post for more discussion on this), then just learning vocab is to ignore the rest of what makes up a language i.e. the grammar and syntax.

Another way of thinking about this is: if you just learn vocab, how would you hope to practice it? I can’t think of any examples when a client said to a lawyer, ‘please can you give me 10 terms to do with reps and warranties beginning with F please’ or ‘please define 5 legal adverbs beginning with here-’. Yet, most students learn in this way – learning legal English by just learning the vocabulary as if they were preparing for a test. These same students don’t think about how to communicate that vocabulary effectively. I’ve news for you, you can learn what the difference is between ‘therefore’ and ‘therefor’, but you are not learning legal English.

So what should you do?

Of course, you should learn the vocabulary used in legal English – each area of English has its own vocabulary – but learn it in context. If your legal English book can’t provide a context to learn the language, go to google and look there. Many online dictionaries and other resources show the word being used in context. The resource I mostly use with non-native lawyers is bab.la – specifically because of the context it provides.

The second step would be to find a context that is not written in bad legal English (see point 3). Learning vocabulary in terrible writing means that you will learn bad writing habits at the same time (more on that in points 3 & 4).

To see me go into more detail about this, please watch this video:

2. Don’t ‘just’ learn ‘legal English’ fixed phrases or legal collocations

Similar to learning legal vocabulary one word at a time, some websites and forums suggest that you learn fixed phrases or legal collocations – ‘don’t just learn words one-by-one like a parrot – learn whole phrases!’ This is wrong not just because of what we discussed in point 1 above, but also because, in most cases, good legal writing doesn’t use those ‘fixed phrases’ or those ‘legal collocations’. Therefore, by learning fixed phrases or legal collocations without questioning them means that you might be learning bad legal English. And, as you’ll see in point 6, you have to make sure your writing is as good as possible.

So what should you do?

You still have to learn the fixed phrase or legal collocation to know what it means. Just because you shouldn’t use them, doesn’t mean that other lawyers won’t use them (unfortunately). However, once you know what they mean, use the plain legal English alternative instead. This alternative is still legal, business-like, and appropriate for legal texts and a lot easier for your reader to understand. There are plenty of materials on the internet to help you with this – just search google for plain legal English. Also, if you look at my free legal English exercises, you’ll find a section called ‘plain English redrafting tasks’. Most of those exercises show you how to use legal English vocabulary in a better way.

To see me go into more detail about this, please watch this video:

3. Don’t ‘just’ read

You might see ‘helpful advice’ that says ‘read lots’ or ‘read good writing’. This is not good advice for three reasons.

  1. If you read bad writing (and there’s plenty of bad legal writing out there), it’s not going to help you but work against you. The aim of legal writing is for the reader to find it easy to read, not for a lawyer to show off their sophisticated legal English skills – read my post here for more info. Also, like many law students going through law school, you’ll fall into the trap of learning how to write badly and continue the trend of bad writing in law.
  2. Without anyone explaining why good writing is good writing, how are you meant to learn?
  3. Most people of think good writers such as being Stephen King or JK Rowling, but as I discuss in point 6 below – that’s not much help. Also, even if you are lucky enough to identify good legal writing, that writing might be difficult to get access to.

What should you do?

You have to read with a specific learning purpose in mind, e.g. you should have these questions in mind:

  • if this is good legal writing, why is it good writing?
  • if this is bad legal writing, why is it bad writing?
  • if I compare good writing with bad writing, can I identify any rules to learn which is which?
  • if I compare my writing against good/bad writing, can I see the similarities and differences?

This is difficult to do by yourself, but not impossible. For a start, my course will help you to answer those question (this is the only plug for it I promise 🙂 you can find details for it here), as will some resources on the internet to help you, and books that offer feedback in the form of answer keys.

4. Don’t ‘just’ read court judgements

This is similar to the point above, but I did see that someone offered this as advice on an internet forum. In my opinion, this is a bit like throwing someone who can’t swim very well into the deep end of the swimming pool. If you are not used to reading court judgements, this is a very hard way to learn. Especially if you’re reading a judgement that was written badly. How can you learn anything from reading through 25 pages of poorly written legal justification, or even think of it as a positive learning experience?

What should you do?

If you are determined to try this (I would recommend that you don’t, at least not at the beginning), search the internet for judges who are known to write good judgements, and try to read those. Two good starting points would be Lord Denning and Judge Scalia. There are some others out there, but in searching for them, you’ll also quickly become aware of how few judges are celebrated as being able to write well. That’s also something to think about.

5. Don’t ‘just’ read or watch crime books or dramas

Reading a courtroom-based novel or a crime-thriller adventure is a great way to spend a few hours. It is not, nor will ever be an effective way to learn legal English. Apart from learning vocabulary that will not help you at all, the language that could be useful in the novel has to be learnt in the appropriate context. One of those contexts would be that of appropriate register i.e. where you can say certain things taking into account the formality / informality of the word. Using informal language at the wrong time will, at best, be embarrassing, at worst, be damaging.

I appreciate that narrative is important in legal writing; however, legal English narrative is different from the kind you’ll see in novels. Further, the style of legal English narrative changes depending on the document you’re writing. Novel-style narrative will not help you when writing terms or conditions, nor in a due diligence.

What should you do?

Leave the crime books and dramas alone, and work with legal English books or other materials focused on your area of law.

6. Don’t do things in the wrong order

If we were going to rank the English language skillsets you need to become a successful lawyer, especially if you are at the beginning of your legal career, it would be this:

  1. Writing
  2. Reading
  3. Listening
  4. Speaking
  5. All other business English soft skills (negotiating, presenting, small talk etc)

The mistake you might make is that you focus on everything else apart from your writing skills. This is understandable as many legal English coursebooks, e.g. International Legal English, don’t focus on writing skills.

The reality is that at the beginning of your legal career, you will be working with documents: analysing, understanding, and interpreting them (2. reading); writing about them (1. writing), and following instructions or corrections from senior lawyers (2. reading and 3. listening).

What should you do?

Of those three skillsets, your writing is the skillset that will help you to succeed as it shows your ability to read and listen effectively and produce content that adds value to the law firm. This is why writing is the most important language skillset you have. This is also the reason why you have to improve your legal writing if you care about your career.

I know it’s the hardest to improve (and possibly the most boring too), but without being able to write effectively, you will find it very hard to succeed in the modern legal world. And remember, this is a legal world that requires you to produce written content at a much faster rate than at any time before in the past.

Only in Hollywood does an intern ‘make deals’ or ‘negotiate terms and conditions’ with clients. So for the time being, put down ‘how to negotiate in English’ and pick up a book from Wydick or Garner (see my post here for recommendations) and do the hard work to help you at the beginning of your career.

7. Don’t assume all legal English books are the same

The basic problem is that legal English is so nuanced, one book won’t cover everything you need to know. And those that try to cover everything, tend not to be good legal English books. For example, the first legal English book you’re likely to meet is International Legal English for the ILEC exam (now not possible to do). This is because it allows language schools to offer legal English courses to its advanced students. It’s not the best legal English book because it tries to do too much and doesn’t do all of it well (I’ve reviewed it here). However, for a lot of legal English students, they might think it is all that they need.

What should you do?

The reality is that you have to think about what or how you want to improve, and then buy the best book with feedback that will help you to achieve your goals. My post here will help you to go through that process. For example, it might be that a legal English book is not what you need, but that a business English or soft skills book will help you the most.

However, saying that, the first book you should think about buying is one that will improve your legal English writing skills. As I mentioned in point 6, writing really is the language skill that will help you to progress in your legal careers. Work on that first. Once you can use English language structures in a better way i.e. you can write well, then you can think about putting in the legal vocabulary that you are learning.

8. Don’t think that learning legal English is quick or easy

If learning legal English was just learning vocabulary, then it wouldn’t take you long – 3 months maybe? But it isn’t that simple – it is a process that takes time. Not only do you have to learn legal English vocab, you also need to learn how to use that vocabulary effectively. As a result, this can sometimes be quite frustrating as you have to relearn a skillset you thought you already knew.

What should you do?

Firstly, understand that learning legal English vocabulary, in itself, will not help you if you don’t know how to use it.

Secondly, set yourself a reasonable and fair amount of time to learn legal English vocabulary and how to write well to use that vocabulary effectively.

Thirdly, you have to have patience. Improving your legal English writing and vocabulary will have both ups and downs. But, it is a journey that will inevitably lead to benefits – benefits that might help your future career if you’re planning a career in law.

Where to go from here?

You should definitely continue to learn legal English! The comments I have made above are based on the decade of experience I have working with hundreds of lawyers and having read and proofread thousands of pages of text. The most important thing is to realise that you might be making a mistake in the way that you are learning legal English, and that by making changes, you will either stop wasting your time or make your learning much more efficient.

Finally, re-read the advice above and leave any questions you have in the comments section below – I’ll do my best to help you 🙂

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “How do I learn legal English? Don’t make these mistakes.

  1. ปั้มไลค์ says:

    Like!! Really appreciate you sharing this blog post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

    1. Simon Porter says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve still got one or two videos to do for this post – they’ll be coming soon!

Comments are closed.