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.

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