New article by Alissa Hartig: “Intersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy”

alissahartigIntersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy” is a recent article published by Alissa Hartig in Studies in Logic, Grammar & Rhetoric (The Journal of University of Bialystok) that discusses a distinction between discourse-structuring concepts and discourse-relevant concepts in ESP. Don’t be intimidated by the linguistics terminology, though. The article describes her work with two LLM students from China and two from Saudi Arabia and provides concrete examples of the complex issues and dynamics at play when teaching them in a law school context.

Hartig is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. She is the author of a forthcoming book titled Connecting language and content in English for Specific Purposes: Case studies in law. (Publisher: Multilingual Matters) Her previous research and writing on the intersection of law and linguistics includes a 2016 article titled “Conceptual blending in legal writing: Linking definitions to facts” and a 2014 article titled “Plain English and legal writing: Comparing expert and novice writers,” both published in the journal English for Specific Purposes.

 

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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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

 

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.

Four-Star Assignments & Legal English Skills

Four Star Assignments

Engaging in a Four-Star Assignment with a student in my TLP Legal Writing I course, focused on the art of crafting counterarguments. Fall 2015, St. John’s Law School.

One of challenges for legal English educators is handling students’ frustration with the difficulties inherent in improving skills that may come naturally to American-born JDs. So at the beginning of my course, I tell my students that there are four skills relating to legal English that they need to develop over the course of our studies. I then ask them to rank the four skills below (listed alphabetically), based on how comfortable they already feel using each one.

LISTENING to legal English
READING legal English
SPEAKING legal English
WRITING legal English

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Language and a Lesson at Orientation

 

Orientation BJTU

Class Picture After Orientation, Beijing Jiaotong Legal English Course, December 4, 2015

For visiting professors overseas, the realities of a short course include the lack of time between classes for students to complete assessments, difficulty getting to know students in the class and a lack of opportunities to incorporate feedback and knowledge into future assignments. With most visiting professors coming to China for one-week or two-week courses, there is simply not enough time to treat the classes as a long-term course. Through my position at St. John’s Law School, I have the opportunity to teach at partner schools for between one month and two months. This affords me some excellent opportunities that help me achieve my course objectives, including:

  • Weekly assessments, formal and informal, to gauge how the class is handling the material;
  • Dedicated office hours each week where students can come to ask questions about difficult material in class (and interact with me outside the classroom); and
  • At least 72 hours after class to complete assignments, and receive heavily critiqued feedback with at least 48 hours to incorporate those changes.

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Welcome!

Welcome to the St. John’s Legal English Blog!

We love discussing, debating, brainstorming, experimenting and pushing the envelope with regard to what “legal English” could and should be, and what it could and should accomplish. But mostly, we love learning from each other and from others in our community in our efforts to provide high quality education in this still developing field.

In addition, as we have collaborated to grow our program at St. John’s, we became aware that we offer three unique yet integrated perspectives on teaching at the intersection of law and language support.

  1. Stephen Horowitz, Director of Legal English Programs. Stephen is a graduate of Duke Law School and former associate at the Wall St. law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan with a recent M.A. in TESOL from CUNY-Hunter College and several years of experience teaching English and studying law in Japan. He designed the curriculum and teaches in the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) program and also co-designed the curriculum for the English for American Law School (EALS) courses and the Bar Exam Language & Strategies (BELS) course which he co-teaches with Kathryn Piper.
  2. Kathryn Piper, a graduate of UC Hastings College of the Law, where she served as the Executive Editor of the Hastings Women’s Law Journal, and Brief Editor for the Traynor California Law Moot Court Team following several years of teaching English in Japan. She teaches the Legal Writing I & II courses and co-teaches Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) I & II for our LL.M. students.
  3. Joshua Alter, a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, who has taught legal writing and related courses since 2013.  He is currently teaching a legal English course in China in his capacity as a visiting professor at schools including Beijing Jiaotong University, East China University of Political Science and Law, and Southwest University of Political Science and Law.

Of all the fields of study that interact with language support and cross-cultural interaction, it is fair to say that law–a field where livelihoods can be ruined based on the placement of a comma or the meaning of “is“–requires the most control and comprehension of the language.

Our goal within this blog is to share our experiences, successes, experiments, challenges, ideas, and anecdotes with the “legal English” community.  We want to discuss and learn in our attempts to fuse the challenges and pedagogy associated with the learning of law with the challenges and pedagogy associated with the learning of a second language.

We invite you to join us in our conversation and welcome your thoughts and insights.