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:
“According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
“The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“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.
I find myself thinking a lot about ways to interweave extensive reading into the law school experience of our LLM students. So much time is spent engaged in intensive reading. Yet research makes clear that reading for enjoyment in English contributes significantly to improving much-needed reading speed, vocabulary, and background knowledge. At the same time, many of our students return to their home countries over the summer before returning for the fall semester and may not focus on improving their legal and language knowledge. Additionally, many LLM students may not have developed a habit of reading for enjoyment in English.
In response, this summer I decided to pilot our first ever LLM Summer Reading Club. I picked a book–24 Hours With 24 Lawyers: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers, edited by Jasper Kim–and invited any and all St. John’s LLM students to join the club if interested. (I also listed several other law-themed books that would make good reads for anyone looking for something to read on their own.)
The plan is that we will pick a couple chapters to read each week and then meet online to discuss the reading. (It looks like WeChat may be our platform of choice, though I just learned that video/voice calls have a 9-person limit which won’t work for us.) No assignments or homework. Just a relaxed, social way to engage in law-related reading and keep students feeling motivated and connected over the summer.
If anyone else has done something along these lines–or if you decide to do it this summer–please feel free to share your experience as well as any advice and perspectives.