Observations from a visiting Chinese professor of legal English

ecupl-bannerWe are fortunate to have a guest post by Haiyan “Eileen” Li, Instructor at School of Foreign Languages East China University of Political Science & Law (ECUPL), who spent 2015-2016 as a visiting scholar at St. John’s School of Education and devoted extensive time to observing the law and “legal English” courses taught to LLM students by myself, Professor Piper, and Professor Alter.

HaiyanLiObservation2

Professor Li (middle left) observes students in a joint TLP/ALDA lawyer-client role play activity.

I was very honored to have an opportunity to study as a visiting scholar at St. John’s University from August 1, 2015 through July 31, 2016. During this period, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to freely sit in and observe several legal courses at St. John’s Law School taught by Professor Horowitz, Professor Piper and Professor Alter. Here I would like to share some of my observations and reflections from those classes.

1. Task-leading Teaching Methodology

I was impressed by the various teaching methodologies used here in connection with legal study for non-native English speakers. For example, the professors would frequently provide a list of reading questions for students to answer in connection with an assigned legal text as a way to guide their reading process and assess comprehension in order to better inform instruction. They would similarly provide a list of engaging questions in connection with field trips to the court or the United Nations, or when students were tasked with observing a particular law school course. These questions helped give structure to the students’ experience and helped them better engage.

In addition to these types of questions to aide comprehension of texts and interactions, the professors often prompted students to explore the discourse and language of legal texts in order to help them identify grammar, syntax, and discourse clues specific to legal texts that helped the students with comprehension. This type of detailed guidance led the students to be able to then produce coherent and professional legal texts in their own writing.

2. Communication Opportunities with Alumni and Experts

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Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself Continue reading

Language, Law & LinkedIn: Encouraging Chinese Law Students to Embrace Professional Social Networking

I try to structure my Legal English courses to be more than just a vehicle for preparing students for U.S. law schools. Ideally, the courses (1) provide the students with a foundational understanding of U.S. law & legal concepts, (2) prepare students to succeed in their LL.M. and J.D. programs and (3) and in some small way, help students think about post-graduate employment in China. To achieve the first aim, I focus on language, vocabulary and concepts. To achieve the second aim, I focus on writing briefs, memos, legal analysis and discussing test-taking strategies. Achieving the third aim is more difficult, for a number of practical issues. LinkedIn has already been a valuable tool for achieving the third aim, and provides students with opportunities to improve their writing, improve their networking skills and begin building a professional presence in a specific field of law.

Step 1: Writing

                The initial process for registering for LinkedIn is painless. Providing a valid e-mail address and some basic information will allow a student to register for free. However, creating a professional profile takes a considerable amount of time and effort, especially for students who speak English as a second language. I start by explaining what LinkedIn is, and why LinkedIn is used by many professionals around the world. I show students sample profiles from law students and lawyers from their specific school to demonstrate that Chinese lawyers use LinkedIn. I discuss examples of bad writing and good writing, and work with the students on how certain information can be improved on existing profiles (without showing the name of the individual profile). I then explain why having a LinkedIn profile will be beneficial to my students in a way that makes them want to actually do all the work I am about to require of them.

In order to ensure that the profile is professional, I encourage students to write the information about their universities, work experience, publications, awards and summary in a word document. I am then able to review these and provide editing and comments. I like that the students are completing a writing exercise, sometimes without even realizing it. They are thinking about past activities, figuring out how to summarize key information in enough detail to provide meaning, and beginning to build their professional profiles. The summary section takes the most time, and students have to critically assess their individual goals for their profiles. Once the language is professional, the students then add the information to their profiles.

Step 2: Networking

Once the profiles are completed, I work with students on actually using their profiles. I show them how to search within their university to see how many of alumni on LinkedIn are in the city where they will attend law school. We then break that down into people within the legal field (as opposed to finance, human resources, engineering, etc.). We then look at which alumni are in their current city and see whether there are any connections. As an optional exercise, I tell students to draft a professional e-mail to a particular alumnus, and ask to meet. I ask the students to find an alumnus with a position or job similar to the one that the student wants right out of college (entry-level) and one with a position or job that the student wants later in life. I ask the students to preferably find alumni who have studied in the United States (ideally at the same school my student is going to), and to then write the e-mail in English (Chinese if the student isn’t comfortable writing in English, or if the alumnus never studied in the United States). I then work with my students on the grammar and structure of the e-mail, the types of questions that the student will want to ask, and etiquette for such a meeting (dress, appearance, behavior, etc.). After the student completes this exercise, the student writes a follow-up e-mail thanking the alumnus, and provides me with an overview (in English) of how the meeting went (either in-person or via e-mail).

Step 3: Professional Presence

After the networking, the focus turns to fine-tuning and maintaining the professional presence, while beginning to build a name in a specific area of law. As the student’s network grows, as the student achieves more (jobs, awards, publications, etc.), and as the student decides which law school to attend, I ask the student to continue updating the LinkedIn profile. If the student has a specific area of interest, I explain to the student how to join groups, display and create related content, and begin focusing on building a personal brand. I work with the student to target current Chinese students at the particular American law school, American students with common interests, and alumni within the desired field. I explain to the students that they should maintain their professional presence, and to think of LinkedIn as a more professional version of WeChat. We discuss what is appropriate to post and comment on, and how to continue expanding their networks through alumni activities, meetings, and professional organizations. Finally, we discuss how the students should use their LinkedIn profiles to target Chinese firms and companies, as well as international firms and companies, for post-graduate employment.

Goals

Rather than merely creating a LinkedIn profile, I try to incorporate language exercises into each stage of the process. Whether the student is summarizing a previous internship, writing an English blog post on a hot topic in Chinese law, or speaking with an alumnus of their American law school in the United States, I want my students to improve their English language and legal analysis. The added bonus is they are improving their professional communication, something Chinese managing partners have repeatedly told me is important. Although I have just started working with students on LinkedIn, I am noticing enthusiasm for using the website, and for using it in ways that ultimately enhance their networking skills. My goal is for LinkedIn to serve as a small part of a coordinated effort to help my Chinese students who will study in the United States secure excellent post-graduate opportunities.

 

Additional Notes

  1. I explain to students how important a professional headshot is for LinkedIn, especially for law students interested in being hired by law firms. First impressions matter, especially in law.
  2. I explain to students how LinkedIn is only as powerful as the network created, and work with the students to find connections from their schools, work, hometowns, etc. I generally wait a week to begin the networking portion, so that students can actually build a small initial network.
  3. There is no universal style for how Chinese lawyers write their names on LinkedIn. Let’s assume a female student named Zhang Yusi chose Jessica as her English name. Her profile might read:
  • Yusi Zhang
  • ZHANG Yusi
  • Jessica Zhang
  • Yusi (Jessica) Zhang
  • Yusi Zhang (with Chinese characters for her name)
  • Or some other combination of English and Chinese

 

Perspectives on Graduate Writing and Bar Preparation

cgc-logoI just returned from a unique and excellent conference–the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute, which was held at Yale University this past Thursday, June 9 through Saturday, June 11.

Yale_University_LogoIt brought together the community of writing support professionals and community of English language support professionals to discuss and share ideas relating to the increased need for graduate level writing support. And it was a wonderful opportunity to think about law school in the greater context of graduate level programs and to get to know and chat with with ESL program directors and professors, writing program directors, and writing center directors.

One aspect that made the conference uniquely productive was the emphasis on discussion and working groups. Each attendee was requested to “bring” a writing curriculum or course project that we would have time to discuss and work on with members of our assigned working groups.

In my case, I focused on the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course that I recently developed and have been teaching with my colleague Kathryn Piper since late May. One of my takeaways from the first three weeks of the course has been that Continue reading

Reflections on Teaching Legal English for Six Months in China

On December 1, 2015, I boarded a flight for Beijing to teach “Legal English” at Beijing Jiaotong University. On June 1, 2016, I completed my last “Legal English for American Law School” (“LEALS”) course in Shanghai at East China University of Political Science and Law. In between, I taught LEALS in Chongqing at Southwest University of Political Science and Law. Reflecting on the entire experience, I am confident that I learned even more than my students! As I finalize my Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 teaching schedules, I am excited to spend the summer tweaking and revamping the courses to incorporate the amazing feedback from my students and improvements I noticed could make this an even better way to prepare students for American law schools.

Recently, my proposal for Teaching Legal English in China: Preparing Students for Transnational Legal Practice has been evaluated and accepted by the Organizing Committee of the 10th International Symposium on Teaching and Researching EFL and ESP Writing for Global and Professional Communication.  The Conference will take place in Taiyuan, China, in late September 2016.  As I began thinking through how I would frame my proposal (and ultimately, my presentation), I began to really think critically of the last six months teaching legal English. Below are four comments on the course from the first cycle of teaching, and one note on how I hope to improve the course going forward.

  1. In general, I structure the class by using one statute as my “vehicle” for teaching students legal English.  I have found that at the early stages of learning U.S. law, it is far less confusing and provides them with an opportunity to really focus on one area.  Due to the nature of short courses (anywhere from two weeks to one month with all other regularly scheduled courses), there is a premium on how much time the students can spend learning new materials.  So far, I have had the most success with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). I prefer using primary texts (in part to give the students the experience of using these texts, in part because I have not yet found any book that covers everything that I need), and collecting and editing down the statutes, legislative history and cases has been an extremely rewarding experience for me personally and professionally.
  1. While there are many ways to think through teaching legal English, this has been by far the most effective for the goals that the universities have for my visits. As discussed previously, universities want me to help their students improve their legal English, legal writing and understanding of U.S. law at the exact same time. By focusing on one statute to teach legal English, we accomplish all these tasks (and more). My students leave the course feeling confident that the skills they learned in relation to a certain statute will make them effective legal analysts no matter what statute they see next time. By understanding how to dissect the FCPA, I hope they can employ similar strategies to dissect the ESA, and any other statute.
  1. Specifically, the course takes a deep dive into statutory analysis, after a basic introduction to U.S. law. We go over the language of the statute or statutory provisions that will form the backbone of the class, which allows us to work together to determine which words are ambiguous and which words we think lead to litigation the most. From there, we discuss the plain language of statutes, legislative history, canons of statutory construction and cases that analyze the specific statute or statutory provisions. I complement this understanding of the statutes with specific writing assignments and group activities that reinforce what the students are being taught during the classes. The writing assignments tend to be analytical, and generally require predictions from the students as lawyers. The group activities tend to be more strategic, and generally require students to think through multiple arguments and determine which one would be the most effective for a lawyer to make.
  1. The cases that I use tend to be the most focused on language.  Students see that the courts have to determine laws after having to understand the language and meaning of a certain word or phrase. This reinforces the importance of English and legal English for my students, and lets them see firsthand just how important language is to law. The cases skew harder to read than the average case a legal English course would normally use, so I make liberal use of providing synonyms for complex words, summaries for students to read after they finish reading a paragraph to ensure they understood the main ideas and sample case briefs for the students to compare to the briefs they wrote.  My goal is for them to work hard to improve their language abilities, but feel like I am guiding them every step of the way.
  1. Because my classes are designed to be small, I have the opportunity to speak with students multiple times during class. During two 45-minute role play simulations, I took each student outside for 5 minutes and had an oral assessment of the background facts, strategy for the role play and their thoughts on the legal issues. My students loved this activity, and it has made me begin thinking through how to incorporate this activity into more classes. I was thinking about either (1) having a teaching assistant monitor the role plays while I am outside of the classroom or (2) teaching one or two less periods per class each week, and using extra periods to routinely conduct the outside the classroom spoken activity.

New book: “Supporting Graduate Student Writers: Research, Curriculum, and Program Design”

Simpson_new.inddI want to share information received from Nigel Caplan (one of the authors) regarding a new book that has been released that I think may be of interest to the law school “legal English” community, even though it’s focus seems to be primarily non-law school graduate students.

Supporting Graduate Student Writers: Research, Curriculum, and Program Design (University of Michigan Press, 2016)
http://www.press.umich.edu/8772400/supporting_graduate_student_writers

The collection is edited by Steve Simpson, Talinn Phillips, Michelle Cox, and Nigel Caplan.(all Consortium on Graduate Communications members) and includes the results of the CGC survey of members, chapters by many colleagues on the CGC listerv, and profiles of interesting and graduate support programs in the US, Canada, Australia, and Sweden. (Paraphrased from Nigel Caplan’s original listserv message.) 

While there is certainly a great deal of focus and energy devoted to legal writing for international students, I believe there is much yet to be done in the legal writing environment from the kind of language support perspective that Caplan and his colleagues have delved into. (Note: You can follow Caplan’s blog here.)

I look forward to reading this book as well as to attending the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute at Yale University next week (June 9-11) to continue learning more about how to teach writing and support writers at the graduate level.

Contracts and Grammar, Prescriptivists and Descriptivists

Contracts_680x376[Co-written with Kathryn Piper]

We were excited–for two different reasons–to see a recent blog post on the Legal Writing Profs Blog titled “An Empirical Look at the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist Dilemma in Drafting.” The post actually leads to a more involved blog post by Ross Guberman titled “A Day in the Life of an American Contract” which lays out the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist dilemma and describes the gap between the kind of language that authoritative sources say should be used in contract drafting and the kind of language actually used in contract drafting. Guberman backs this up with a review of 25 contracts arbitrarily pulled from the SEC website all on the same recent April day.

The reason this post caught our attention is 1) we are currently developing a contract drafting curriculum for a new course (Drafting: Litigation Documents & Contracts) intended for non-native English speaking LLM students, and 2) descriptivist vs. prescritivist is a big theme in the world of applied linguistics and grammar, a theme that ran throughout my MA TESOL studies.

In case you’re not up on things in the linguistics/grammar world, professionals in the field have increasingly Continue reading