LLM students as a law school asset: Collaboration activity for JD and LLM students

I’m very fortunate to work at a law school that not only talks the talk of LLM students as an asset but walks the walk. In that vein, thanks to some cross-program collaboration and interaction among our faculty, we recently devised an effective yet simple (and easily replicable) activity to facilitate interaction between LLM and JD students that proved eye-opening and beneficial for all involved.

The activity: An email exchange between the 33 students in Professor Rebecca Lowry’s LLM legal writing classes and the 33 students in Professor Rachel H. Smith’s JD legal writing section regarding a Title VII issue that Professor Smith’s JD students had already been working on.

This was set up as a role-play in which the students all worked for the same global law firm, but in different departments and/or offices of the firm. The LLM students were told they are associates who have been directed by a senior attorney to learn more about Title VII in order to have a better sense of a company’s value that is involved in an acquisition transaction. The senior attorney has given the LLM student the name of another attorney in the firm (the JD student) who has recent expertise with Title VII. The JD students are given minimal information and told only that they will be receiving an email from a non-native English speaking attorney in the firm asking something about Title VII.

The goals: The idea for this activity first game up while chatting tangentially during one of our LLM Instructor Workshops (workshops I organize once or twice a semester to gather professors who work with non-native English speaking students). We already run a separate lawyer-client role-play in which my ALDA students act as clients and meet with Professor Kathryn Piper’s LLM Legal Writing students who act as lawyers. The LLM Legal Writing students interview their client in person and then follow up with a written letter summarizing the conversation and detailing next steps. This activity is a great chance to work on professionalism, formulating question, and client letter writing as well as legal substance. Continue reading

Language and grammar strategies for non-native English speaking JD law students – Part 1

This past week I had the opportunity to work on language issues with a non-native English speaking JD student who was referred to me by the student’s professor. The student, who came to the US when he was 18, is doing well in law school, but has some language-related quirks popping up in his writing that didn’t seem to be fixing themselves.

Prof. Paul Kei Matsuda

Coincidentally, the previous week I happened to attend a guest lecture by Paul Kei Matsuda, Professor of Applied Linguistics and Director of Second Language Writing at Arizona State University, who is one of the thought leaders in the field of second language writing. The main theme of his lecture was that it is essentially unfair to grade second language writers on their grammar, in the sense that language is acquired in ways and at a pace that is not necessarily within our control. He likened grading such a student on their grammar to grading them on how tall they grow before graduating.

Image result for determiners articlesThis point reminded me and reaffirmed for me the notion that you can’t know what you don’t know. In the case of the JD student, he (like all JD students) was advised to read his papers out loud to help him catch his errors. And this strategy was helpful to him in some ways, but not with regard to identifying errors that he didn’t know were errors.

The student, in his embarrassment, actually attributed the issue to the fact that when he first came to the US, he learned a lot of English from watching videos and listening to music, and he fretted that that was a mistake since he didn’t learn proper English. I quickly pointed out to the student that this was not his fault. That his way of learning English was actually a great strategy and extremely important to his language development. I also explained the concepts of BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) and how it’s much harder to acquire native level proficiency in academic English, in part because the frequency of use of and exposure to CALP is simply much lower in daily life, particularly with regard to output (i.e. speaking and writing.)

Image result for bics calpI commented that no amount of reading his writing aloud would change this. Because his ear and brain can only recognize the version of English that he knows. This explanation helped him relax a bit.

Next, I had him read his paper aloud to me so that I could assess which types of errors he could catch himself and which kinds he was not noticing. As we moved along, I began to introduce him to some strategies for the errors that he was not able to identify.

I noticed that articles, prepositions, and words with “s” endings were common issues in his writing. Sometimes he knew what sounded right, but other times he didn’t. The common denominator, I recognized, is that these are all parts of language that we as native speakers tend to learn by ear–not by studying rules–yet they are all parts of language that tend to be dropped or de-emphasized in speech which makes them harder to hear. Continue reading

Non-native English speaking JD students: international students and 1.5 generation students

My mandate and jurisdiction, since I started at St. John’s Law School in the summer of 2014, has been to work with the LLM students, i.e., the non-native English speakers. And over that time my role has evolved from being a “legal English” teacher to becoming an academic support professional whose students’ primary (but not only) support need is language-related.

However, more and more I find myself coming in contact with non-native English speakers in the JD student body. Some are international students who applied directly to the JD program, either after graduating from a university in their home country or perhaps first attending a university in the US. Some are LLM-to-JD transfer students who started out as international students in the LLM program and subsequently transferred to the JD program after completing their LLM degree. And some are 1.5 generation students.

According to the Stanford University Teaching/Writing website, “generation 1.5 refers to students who are U.S. residents or citizens but whose first or home language was not English, although for some of these students, English does in fact function as their primary language.”

As a result, I have been trying to think of ways to provide language-related support for these students. But they’re in a tricky position. As non-native English speakers, they lack an intuitive sense of what sounds right. Grammar and punctuation issues aren’t just a matter of cleaning up sloppy usage for them. So in their writing, they may be penalized for language/grammar issues in their papers, yet school policies limit their ability to get outside help on a graded assignment to ensure that all work turned in is that of the students. Continue reading

IRAC, mirroring and language control for LLM students in legal writing

“Lacks control of language” — This is one of those feedback comments that sounds incisive and succinct to us writing instructors but which, for non-native English speakers, is actually very subjective. It describes a writer who isn’t communicating her ideas in a clear or accurate manner.

In my writing work with LLM students, we work on the fundamentals of IRAC-style essays in the context of law school exams. And I work with my students on an idea we call “mirroring,” which means that certain key words from the Rule section need to also be present in the Analysis section. And those words then need to be equated with key facts to demonstrate that such facts do or do not meet the standard set by the Rule.

However, connecting rules and facts in one sentence frequently requires students to have the grammar to connect their ideas. Otherwise, the sentences come out as separate, seemingly disconnected statements. That is, they lack control of their writing. Also, when students lack confidence in their control of their writing, they often avoid the language they need to connect rule and facts, and the Analysis can end up just being a recitation of the facts followed by a leap to a conclusion. Continue reading

Recent innovations in academic support for LLMs at St. John’s

With each additional year I work at St. John’s Law School, my role seems to evolve increasingly from “legal English” teaching toward a larger umbrella category of “academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students,” with language support of course being a significant component.

This is because, while much of my direct teaching has been with “pre-LLM” students (i.e., our 4-week summer English for American Law School (EALS) course; our concurrent Spring EALS course; and our full semester ALDA legal English program), my colleagues and I have recognized that the majority of our LLM students still have continuing language and academic support needs and areas for improvement throughout their time in the program. This shift has grown in part out of conversations I’ve had with our legal English counterparts at Georgetown Law, who have been offering extensive legal English support to their LLMs for some years now. And it’s also benefited from interactions with our very collaborative Dean of Academic Achievement, Susan Landrum, whose focus is on JD students but frequently has tuned us in to helpful resources and best practices in the field of academic support in general as well as the existence of a large and collaborative community of law school academic support professionals.

Armed with increased awareness and knowledge, the challenge has been to somehow squeeze in substantive ongoing language support while also adapting other forms of academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students (and also for the increasing number of international JD students) without burdening or interfering with students’ already busy schedules and coursework. To that end, here are some of the solutions I and my Office of Graduate Studies colleagues have developed:

1. Conversation Partners Program: Native English speaking JD student volunteers are matched with LLM students who express interest in having a Conversation Partner. (This includes my ALDA students who are required to have a Conversation Partner.) A key “innovation” that I think has helped encourage participation is setting 15 minutes as the amount of time for Conversation Partners to meet (as opposed to an hour or 30 minutes). Also, building relationships with and soliciting JD student volunteers from student groups such as the International Law Student Association and the Multi-lingual Legal Alliance.

2. Written Language Feedback Project: Currently, two Writing Fellows from the law school’s Writing Center are now providing written language feedback to a sample group of 8 students from the LLM Legal Research & Writing course during the semester with guidance and oversight from me. Continue reading

A simple yet sophisticated vocabulary trick for getting to know a legal English word

As my Legal Writing students reminded me the other day, it’s one thing to know a word when reading. It’s another to figure out how to use it correctly in writing.

In this case, the troublesome legal English word is “precedent.”  Below are a few sample sentences from my students’ writing with attempts to use the word:

  1. According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  2. The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
  3. The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  4. One precedent is that a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground was issued a littering ticket.”

Grammatically, these sentences are fine. Yet, as a native English speaker and teacher of legal writing, the use of “precedent” sounds decidedly off. But why? What you might find yourself saying is, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Yet that feels like an insufficient explanation given that the fundamental ability a non-native English speaker lacks is the ability to know what sounds right.

So what is a legal writing professor of LLM students to do? Continue reading

St John’s LLM Summer Pre-Bar Prep Program

This summer we are excited to roll out our first-ever Summer LLM Pre-Bar Prep Program. This is a self-study program for St. John’s LLM students who are planning to take the bar exam in 2019, and it focuses on helping those students continue to improve language fluency as well as general and specific knowledge over the summer months.

The self-study curriculum will consist of:

1. An extensive reading program to build vocabulary, reading speed and fluency, and background knowledge.

  • Time is perhaps the biggest challenge for LLM students on the bar exam. It takes LLM students longer to read the questions and process the information. Additionally, vocabulary and background knowledge can be significant impediments to comprehension. e.g., A fact pattern that references American football. And the best way to “tackle” all three of these aspects is extensive reading, i.e., 1) reading a lot; 2) of texts that are easy to read (90% of vocabulary is familiar); and 3) and of texts that are enjoyable to read (because if it’s not enjoyable, then students don’t read a lot).
  • For our extensive reading program, we rely in a large part on Newsela, which contains a very large and constantly growing library of actual news articles and other texts, all re-written at 4 additional (and easier) levels. In other words, if an article is too difficult, you can simply choose an easier version to read. Or viewed from another perspective, there are tons of very easy-to-read and genuinely interesting texts which is fantastic for building reading speed and vocabulary. Additionally, Newsela has a trove of articles on law and American legal history and culture–all written at 5 different levels–including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Brown v. Board of Ed, and Plessy v. Ferguson. All of this content, including the non-legal content, is great for building the kind of cultural and background knowledge that American students learn growing up and that professors and test makers assume students possess.
  • Additionally, each article (and each level of each article) has a 4-question quiz that can be used to check and see how well the student understood the article.
  • Drawing on this resource, we put together a collection of law-relevant content that students can choose articles from each week.
  • Using the tools provided via our Newsela account, we can easily track the students’ reading and quiz scores over the summer.

Continue reading