Life Skills. What Do Employers Want from Graduates?

Growing popularity of the law studies, overproduction of law graduates, and the new demands of the labour market require the legal English teachers to reformulate their believes and workshop. The role of LSP (Languages for Specific Purposes) teachers is constantly evolving towards the one of the language coaches, who are able to equip their students with the skills that will help the them increase employability at the outset of their careers.

Nowadays employers look for people who communicate well both verbally and in writing. The ability to use a foreign language verbally, to write clearly and succinctly, to demonstrate a wide range of profession related vocabulary, to prove the skill of critical thinking, analyse and research information in order to perform a task, may guarantee the competitive advantage over other candidates. Recruiters often mention drafting as the most striking lack among the job seekers. Therefore, applicants need to demonstrate very good, if not excellent, foreign language skills as early as at the stage of a job interview.

With 20 years of experience as an academic ESP (English for Specific Purposes) teacher I try to model my courses so that my students complete them not only with TOLES (Test of Legal English Skills) certificates, which is the requirement of my University, but also the extensive knowledge of legal and business English skills that they will transfer to respond to the expectations on the labour market when the need arises.

If I were to conduct a traditional needs analysis recommended by the ESP authors, I would have to investigate my students’ prior experience in English learning, identify their strengths and weaknesses, collect information about their lacks, wants and wishes, establish what knowledge and skills they already possess, what learning strategies they apply, what motivates them to learn, and on that basis specify what skills and knowledge they should develop during the course.

TOLES examination syllabus and its requirements, as well as my long experience, may simplify the whole task without the need of conducting the needs analysis sensu stricto. With more advanced students the completion of the task within two academic years is not a very challenging job. However, during that time the freshers start to grow up and mature, sometimes they apply for their first job and start to think about their future seriously. Thanks to them I have started to realise that their target needs, apart from the examination preparation, will also comprise the ability to deal with the tasks assessing their knowledge of English during the recruitment processes. Therefore, developing the so called life skills in the legal English classroom has recently become my secondary objective. Life skills are the skills necessary for active and successful participation in life, in this case in professional life which will help law students and law graduates face the demands of the labour market and prepare them for the challenges of the real, professional world. These may comprise among others: translation, mediation (of meaning), register transfer, public/court speaking, client interviewing, and drafting.

As a linguist and an academic I am not involved in corporate business dealings, so I have decided to track early careers of my prior students with the help of a business oriented social networking service LinkedIn in order to obtain a more detailed feedback. From my past experience and contacts with practising lawyers I knew that law graduates are expected to be professional and independent, have strong drafting, legal research and analytical skills. They have to work hard, be dedicated, enthusiastic and driven to achieve excellent results, take initiative, be brave to make judgments or prepare a memo with an objective analysis, work well with others and communicate well with clients, be flexible and able to adapt to the needs of the supervising lawyers. However, I wanted to know how ideal job candidates are recruited in practice.

A group of fifteen students was contacted and asked to participate in an email interview providing me with the descriptive answers to the questions concerning the particular tasks they had had to perform in English during the job interviews they had attended and the use of English later on the job.

My respondents often stressed that the knowledge of English was usually tested during the recruitment processes in big, multinational corporations and quite rarely in small, Polish companies and law offices. They mentioned that most often they participated in a casual conversation about general topic, e.g. their interests within the area of law or the topic of their Master theses. The objective of the conversation was to check their ability to express themselves verbally, their vocabulary including job-related vocabulary. Some respondents mentioned that such conversations had had sometimes been conducted by native speakers.

In big corporations linguistic tests are a part of the recruitment procedure. The tests may consist in correcting mistakes in an English text, completing a grammatical test, multiple choice test or lexical test checking the knowledge of specialist vocabulary which resembles certificate examinations such as TOLES or ILEC (International Legal English Certificate organized by Cambridge English). The tests are sometimes short essays or summaries of the texts on the topics related to the branch of business which the company operates in. The topics are often designed so that they also check the so called commercial awareness, i.e. the general knowledge of up-to-date economic, political or social affairs. The tests may be conducted in a traditional paper form during the job interview or online.

Another kind of assignment which is quite common are translation tasks. My respondents mentioned the following kinds of texts which they had had been asked to translate into English: sample contract clauses, extracts from the codes (e.g. the Civil Code or the Penal Code) or other specialist and legal texts, e.g. from the area of property law, company documentation, e.g. shareholders’ meetings resolutions, agendas, or power of attorneys.

Other written tasks applied during the recruitment processes were quite varied and consisted in drafting a note, pleadings, a balance sheet, an e-mail to a client/customer, editing a text written in an informal register to the typical lawyerlike style. Sometimes candidates were asked to solve case studies within a set time limit, draft a legal opinion or give legal advice to a client verbally, e.g. on establishing a business in Poland and optimizing taxes. The biggest and most prestigious employers (the Big Four or the Magic Circle) use various online tests which are in English but not necessarily check the knowledge of the language as such but other skills, e.g. numerical, verbal or reasoning ones. Candidates solving these tests have to read a lot of text and understand the instructions in English, usually under the time pressure, but the tests eventually provide the recruiters with the non-linguistic feedback about the candidates.

The range of tasks which law graduates may be faced with is vast. Therefore, it is advisable to enrich  university language courses syllabi with the activities aimed at the development of the written skill. Following our students careers may help us gain practical information what kind of tasks these might be. Unfortunately, written tasks are usually not favourably welcomed by the students, since they are usually very demanding, time consuming and more difficult as compared with the tasks developing other skills. Incorporating them into the syllabi will definitely pay off in the long run.

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