Why is teaching Legal English such a challenge?

Why is teaching Legal English such a challenge?


Why? Because nothing about a Legal English class is standard and textbook.

Years ago, when I started teaching Legal English, I went about it the way I would with any other class. I made a lesson plan, set my objectives, chose the learning material, timed the activities and went in. I had anticipated that my biggest challenge would be the subject matter – Legal English – and the fact that I was teaching something that I practically knew very little about. I had done some research on the subject, looked up new vocabulary and made sure I knew the meaning in Slovak. I expected I would have to translate new words and explain what’s what. To my surprise, the students hardly ever asked any vocabulary questions and if they did and I provided a definition or a translation, they would frown and say: ‘Yeah, but that’s not how we use it in our law.’ or, worse still, they would ask about very small details that I hadn’t thought of, such as: “What’s the difference between subscribe and underwrite?” Luckily enough, they rarely relied on me for the answer as there was usually someone in the group who knew it and sparked a lively debate on the minute semantic differences and their practical legal consequences.

That, of course, would leave me feeling inadequate, out of my depth and, frankly, quite useless. And yet they turned to me with some very basic grammar questions and asked for more (!) Legal English lessons. So, like many teachers before me and many teachers since, I realized that my role in the Legal English class was not to teach the law (of course) or legal terminology in English. They didn’t need me to enlighten them on the structure of the UK court system, the principles of  common law or specifics of EU regulations – the topics discussed in the course books. They found most of the course book chapters too general or even irrelevant. On the other hand, they would bring in a draft of a contract they were working on and asked me to correct the mistakes or check particular wording here and there. (And we’re back at inadequate and useless!)

So after many long moments of silent panic and several lesson plans thrown out of the window I decided to map my terrain and do a proper analysis of what I’m dealing with in my Legal English classes.

Here’s are my findings (the light-hearted version):

The students

Much as I hate to generalize, for our purposes and a suspicious lack of exceptions, I dare say my Legal English students are:

  • all qualified legal professionals, mostly working as corporate lawyers or attorneys-at-law, often in their own law firms
  • highly intelligent, sharp and quick (no exceptions here)
  • well-spoken and well-read
  • with well-developed reading skills
  • detail-oriented, bordering on nitpicking
  • disciplined (OK, some exceptions here )

The class

The students in my Legal English classes often share the qualities above. What they don’t often share, though, is a language level.

Since both in corporations and in law firms, there is a limited number of lawyers, you rarely have a free hand in dividing the students into groups by level. Instead, you have, let’s say, 7 lawyers in a department, including 2 managers and a budget for 2 groups max. As a result, you typically end up with a mixed-level group of 5 and the 2 managers together in a separate group (also mixed-level, of course!)

In a General English class, these students would never study together but, alas, you have no choice.

Another thing they will have in common is their job description and the way the use English at work:

  • all of them read contracts regularly and submit their comments and amendments
  • all of them read laws and latest legal regulations
  • most of them need to communicate with fellow lawyers
  • most of them need to communicate legal positions to non-lawyers, e.g. colleagues from other departments or clients
  • very few of them use English regularly outside the legal context and if they do, then passively (reading books, watching films and TV series etc.)
  • all of them do all of the above REGARDLESS of their actual language level!

The language

I think it’s beyond discussion that Legal English is simply hard. I’m a native speaker of Slovak and struggle with Slovak Legalese when reading a loan agreement or the service agreement of my mobile operator. (Hands up who has ever read through all of it!  ) But then again, I may be a native speaker but I’m not a lawyer. With Legal English students, it’s the opposite. They know the content, all the theory behind it as well as all the consequences and repercussions related to it but they are not proficient in the language itself. They are students of English as a Foreign Language and struggle with the same things a General English student would. However, the language they deal with in practice in no way reflects their level of English. Quite the opposite, an Intermediate student/lawyer commonly deals with grammar points and syntactical structures that a General English student hardly ever encounters, let alone has to process and produce.

On top of that, mind you, the legal texts my students commonly use in their practice are rarely written by English native speakers. For example, my students who work as corporate lawyers in banks, usually deal with contracts written by their Slovak or Austrian colleagues and translated into English from Slovak and German. And amended, amended, amended…

So it’s no surprise if they look like this:

The mortgage herein constituted is intended by the parties hereto to be security for the payment of all amounts (whether principal, interest, fees, indemnities or other amounts) that are now or hereafter outstanding or payable to the Bank under the Tranches B and C Loan Agreement. It shall not be construed as limiting or in any way precluding the exercise by the Bank of any or all of its rights for the full payment of such amounts under the Tranches B and C Loan Agreement.

Now, we can tell at a glance that what we’re dealing here is:

  • highly specific lexis: terms of art, obscure words, words with a different meaning in General English, foreign words, Latin words and phrases (commonly, although not in this extract),  reference words, collocations etc.
  • complex morphology: prefixes, suffixes, compounds, pronouns, participles, articles with specific use, determiners with specific use etc.
  • really complex syntax: complex formal phrases, prepositional phrases, participle clauses, modal verbs and modal expressions, infinitive clauses, cross-reference markers etc.
  • long, long, loooong sentences

I was joking about the brief glance, of course. It takes more of a thorough linguistic analysis to isolate the language the students deal with, identify their potential problems and set learning goals. Now back to my moments of silent panic in class, you see what I mean, I’m sure.

The teacher

The ideal Legal English teacher would be both a lawyer by profession with legal practice and a qualified EFL teacher with at least a DELTA or a Master’s Degree in English as a Foreign Language in order to be able to deal with all the aspects of teaching Legal English, from the linguistic issues to teaching methodology. If such a creature exists, I have never beheld one and seriously doubt I ever will. (If you are one, please, get in touch!)

So we are left with 2 common types of Legal English teachers:

Type 1: The teaching lawyer

  • holds a legal qualification of some sort and some legal experience. Whether that matches his/her students’ practice, specialization and jurisdiction is another matter.
  • holds a teaching qualification of some sort and some teaching experience…or not. But let’s say yes. Whether that is sufficient to manage all of the above is another matter still.

Type 2: The lawyering teacher

  • not a qualified lawyer with legal experience limited to reading and signing (their own) loan agreements, lease agreements and mobile data service agreements
  • a qualified teacher of English as a Foreign Language. In Slovakia, to gain a teaching trade license, you need a Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. To keep it general, let’s say most practising Legal English teachers in Slovakia are university graduates either teaching freelance or for language schools.

As you may have guessed, I’m Type 2, except I rarely read the whole of my loan agreements. Mobile data service agreements – never.

As a Type 2 teacher standing in front of a group of lawyers/students, breathing through a panic attack, I have tried and transformed the panic into a checklist of questions that help me navigate my teaching practice and my own further teacher development, or, in short:


  1. What is my role in this class? What do my students expect from my classes?
  2. What are the students’ learning goals and what do they need in order to meet them?
  3. What do I actually need to teach them?
  4. What do I need to learn myself in order to be able to teach them?
  5. What research, resources and materials will help me get my students where they need to be?




As you can see, it’s not rocket science but answering these questions is difficult because, as I said at the beginning, nothing about a Legal English class is standard and textbook.

However, I firmly believe answering them or at least considering them when in class or preparing for a class is crucial and very helpful to both the teacher and the students.

I will be using the means of this blog to do so and sincerely hope you will join me and share some of your panic list items. 


Thank you for reading and I’ll be back soon with more. 🙂