Legal English Teachers’ Visions for the Future

A little research which I conducted last year showed that Polish Legal English teachers are very ambitious. The Wordle in this post shows which words my respondents used most often.

On 23-24 October 2010 I attended a conference in Piotrków Trybunalski on


My presentation on the topic:

Learning to Teach Legal English.
Teachers’ Professional Development in ELP Context.

can be viewed here: Piotrkow Presentation of 23 Oct 2010

I would like to thank all my colleagues who responded to my questionnaire. You have all been very helpful and I am under great impression of your qualifications, ambition and hard work you do every day to develop as teachers and to satisfy the needs of your students.

Once again, thank you, All.

On Commercial Awareness

Law graduates need very practical linguistic skills, i.e. communication skills, both written and oral, since lawyers and trainees need to be able to communicate effectively both with colleagues and clients. Therefore, language accuracy and ability to draft legal documents in plain English are key. One of the skills that recruiters test when screening applications and at interview is a candidate’s spelling, punctuation and the ability to use correct grammar. An application littered with mistakes is an immediate turn-off and may not be considered because of this, advises Matt Bryan, graduate recruitment officer, Trowers & Hamlins on The most challenging language problems which all law students have and must master are: the correct use of prepositions and collocations. Polish students will also have to concentrate on articles, countable and uncountable nouns and development of plain language writing skill. As Catherine Mason noticed Polish students display a tendency to use long, complicated, sentences full of empty unnecessary words. The example Catherine Mason gave to follow was George Orwell whose simple style and text structure may serve as an excellent example.

At an interview candidates can expect some very practical tasks to do, e.g.:

  1. Translate an indemnity clause from a commercial contract;
  2. What is wrong with the sentence: … your e-mail from 25 May;
  3. Advise a client on how to start a business in Poland.

Task number 3 above tests another skills which recruiters are looking for in law graduates is commercial awareness, which is a term that refers to a student’s  general knowledge of business, their business experiences (or work experience) and, specifically, their understanding of the industry which they are applying to join. Students will need to know some basic general commercial principles to be able to answer general commercial awareness questions, such as being able to explain the difference between a private limited company and a public limited company. They will also need to be able to discuss differences between Polish or European Union and common law systems, e.g. what taxes are paid, employment law issues, finance options for a new business, liabilities for debts, etc. They will also need to know about any current major global economic issues, and their impact, or potential impact, on their employer’s business sector. Therefore, students should read publications such as Financial Times, BBC News, The Lawyer, as well as news about Poland in English (e.g.,

A web portal gives the following examples of typical commercial awareness interview questions:

  1. Describe a company you think is doing well/badly and explain why you think this is so.
  2. What do you think are key qualities for a company to have to be successful?
  3. What significant factors have affected this industry in recent years? (The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a key factor for accounting and especially audit.)
  4. What do you understand of the role this firm plays in this industry?

An attempt to develop students’ commercial awareness was made by me by means of a blog for Polish students of law ( in which they discuss current economic, political and legal issues.

Needs Analysis in ELP

Each teaching situation, even within the context of tertiary English for Legal Purposes, is different. In the process of course design many other constraints should be taken in to consideration apart from the results of the needs analysis. Course design is always a negotiation process which should consider not only the needs or wishes of all the stakeholders but also other limitations such as available resources, e.g. the length of the course, the number of teaching hours, teaching materials; potential and experience of the learners, the expected outcome of the course, the form of the final assessment, etc.

However, in each case the options are manifold. Law students, i.e. lawyers to be, need to obtain comprehensive education in terms of foreign language skills. Above all they need to achieve at least intermediate level of General English skills to be able to communicate freely with clients or other lawyers in their future workplace. Consequently they will need to develop their overall knowledge of the foreign language in order to attain at least CEFR B2 level as required by the Council of Higher Education.

Students and school authorities wishes as regards international certificates are also justifiable. Preparation for a certificate examination has been proven to act as a very important motivator for university students who usually are not very highly motivated to study foreign languages. Above all, it provides them with a internationally recognized document which confirms their knowledge of specialist variety of English at a certain level. For university graduates who usually do not possess much professional experience to include in their CVs, foreign language certificates are documents which they are usually very proud of.

All in all, the most important aspects which course designers and teachers modelling Legal English courses must take into consideration are very practical skills which lawyers-to-be will need in their future jobs. Even though the today’s students might protest, their foreign language instructors must remember that the weakest point reported by international law firms commenting on their expectations towards law graduates is the writing skill. The core of Legal English course should constitute the development of legal drafting and accuracy (i.e. prepositions, collocations, articles) as it accounts for the quality of a written text.

Needs analysis results show that students usually identify speaking as their weakest point and most essential problem. Speaking activities have a great potential and the part of the syllabus which can enliven the classes and increase the students’ satisfaction. In the case of Legal English lessons, however, speaking activities should be localized, i.e. based on the context of local law. Namely, Polish students will most probably work in the context of Polish or European Union law. They do not really feel the need to discuss the aspects of common law. It is the teachers’ task to create opportunities for communication based on local law which often will demand creating their own teaching materials/incentives for meaningful communication.

Legal English classroom is a place of numerous opportunities and challenges both for the students and the teachers. On the other hand, it is probably one of the most complex ESP contexts which requires a lot of engagement and experience on the part of the teachers and hard work and stamina on the part of the students. Structuring such courses to the best advantage of the students is a constant negotiation process between the constraints imposed by the teaching institution and the needs of the students which mature and emerge along the course. Experienced teachers will be able to combine the sometimes mutually exclusive needs of the stakeholders and prepare the lawyers-to-be for the challenges of the job market.