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.


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

One of the impressive methodologies I observed involved several assignments where students were required to interview and establish relationships with other JD students and alumni of St. John’s University. They were tasked with emailing and calling alumni or meeting with JD students to gather information and perspectives on topics such as legal ethics or study organization strategies for law school. Additionally, students were taken on field trips to visit state and federal courts (where St. John’s Law alumni serve as judges) as well as one of the largest law firms in the world (where a St. John’s Law alumnus is the Managing Partner). In this way, the students not only learned how to communicate with other legal experts, but also felt a greater connection to New York City (a large and often impersonal and intimidating city to most first year international students) since they then knew of others in the city who shared the same legal education experience with themselves, and they had the chance to interact with St. John’s Law alumni in the midst of their law practice.

3. Effective Co-teaching

I also witnessed wonderfully effective, student-centered co-teaching amongst professors, which helped make the substance and content of the course more accessible for the legal students. In a number of situations, the professors divided the students into different study or working groups based on their ability and provided differentiated tasks to enable each group maximize their learning. Through co-teaching, the professors also incorporated class activities such as legal sentence writing, Moot Court arguments, case briefing, and legal memoranda writing, all of which fully involved and engaged the students in their own learning. As a result, students found themselves improving their legal English without even noticing it in the moment.

4. General Comments

Through one year’s observation, I have been further impressed that the professors prepare students in every aspect of legal study, from building legal background information, to understanding the American legal system, to legal and professional writing styles. And the teaching not only focuses on legal content, but also on how to communicate within professors and students, how to build good study habits in law school, and how to deal with the pressure and stress of American law school.

Sitting among and interacting with the students myself, I also came to appreciate the professors’ efforts in supporting students in various ways with regard to both their law school life as well as beyond the walls of the law school. And I benefitted greatly from each conversation I had with professors and students, from their research information, as well as various discussions about teaching and pedagogy. I also found myself inspired by their intelligence, diligence and motivation, which I believe would exert a positive influence anyone who is fortunate enough to attend their legal courses.

I hope to have the opportunity to put into practice many of these wonderful methodologies as I return to China. Already I am missing those wonderful moments from classes I have attended at St. John’s University Law School.




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