My colleague Katy Piper and I have the opportunity to try something new and exciting for our Summer 2016 semester: a course focused on language support for non-native English speaking students who will be taking the New York bar exam in July 2016–the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course. We’re not aware of any similar type of course or program at a U.S. law school. (If you know of one, please let us know. We’d love to hear about it.)
While most of our interaction to date has been with the Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) and American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) LLM Programs, we’ve also had some opportunities to work with some students from the U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) LLM Program. All USLS LLM students are foreign-trained lawyers focused on passing the bar exam. Some are international students and others are immigrants living in the New York area. Given our location in Queens (the most ethnically diverse urban place in the world), this group often includes speakers of Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic (among other languages) as well as speakers of various World Englishes.
The idea sprung from a conversation earlier this semester with beloved St. John’s Professor Robert Ruescher, who had mentioned anecdotally that in his view, essay writing seemed to be the biggest obstacle to New York bar passage for non-native English speaking students. USLS LLM Program Director Lucas Rezende (himself a graduate of the USLS LLM Program who succeeded in passing the New York bar) was of a similar view.
After discussing further, Katy and I grew excited at the notion that we could apply some of our ESL-influenced “legal English” writing pedagogy to the benefit of the USLS students for bar passage purposes. So we arranged a meeting with the USLS students several weeks ago to explain our idea and gauge interest in this free course. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and now we’re in the midst of preparing for this new post-graduate course.
The students generally have a strong grasp of the material and are fluent, or fairly fluent, in their speaking. However, they may have gaps in their grammar and syntax when using sophisticated written English, or they may still be developing their American-style legal writing discourse. Our belief is that if we can help them remedy some of their language issues in the context of bar exam writing, the increase in the clarity of their writing will give them more confidence with the bar exam (and a higher score) which in turn will enable them to move forward in their careers. And that would be a great feeling all around.
Stay tuned. We’ll post again on this topic.