Law in Contemporary Society
“Law talk” as a second language: Why law school should take cues from Spanish class

In a good foreign language class, the teacher use a variety of teaching methods—generally some combination of reading, writing, and oral lessons—to help students with comprehension. I admit that at the end of the school year, I never quite felt confident enough to engage a person off the street with my high school Spanish abilities. Still, I think law school, at least Columbia, can take a cue from this type of learning immersion. While no expert in teaching pedagogies, with one year of law school under my belt I feel I can at least speak on my observations. At Columbia, we focus almost entirely on reading. That should be cool, right? We’re merely reading cases written in our native English. We’re smart. We would have read enough, assessed the analysis in legal opinions enough, answered a question or two under the pressure of the Socratic method enough that a law exam should simply be a seamless extension of what we’ve been doing for three months. Reading the comments from one professor’s model answer demonstrates that this is not an entirely successful exercise. Disappointed with the lack of his students’ analysis, he finds substantial gaps between the students that “get it” and manage A level exam answers and the middling rest.

The thing is we are smart, we do read enough, and we read quite enough legal analysis. But even three or four months of this is simply not effective for most of us to demonstrate the kind of analysis that professors want reflected in a 1 hour question. There will be handful of students with the brilliance to easily apply the language they learned and produce something coherent and intelligent. With a hypothetical set of facts, a great measure of intuition, and a working knowledge of legal rules these students will rise to the top of the class. The problem is that “law talk,” as Professor Moglen calls it, isn’t quite English. We basically have to set up a fortress in the library and spend hours poring over something that pretends to be English. I mean, it reads like English words, kind of sounds like them, even. But it simply doesn’t translate into something meaningful until the better part of a semester. Then the rest of the semester is spent reading the cases a little more easily, extracting rules from them, and haphazardly creating a voluminous outline that pieces together those bits of rules. Certainly, foreign language classes have a lot of reading, but there is nary a foreign language class that relies so heavily on reading without equal time devoted to speaking and writing the language. That’s what we need more of.

This is not a matter of teaching to the test, but teaching in a way that prepares us for how we’ll use the law in real life. At the least, if we’re going to have a grading system so reliant on final exam performance, it won’t hurt to prepare us for that too. One of my classes required us to prepare written reflections every few weeks. I think that is helpful. In addition to doing more writing, why not shorten lectures a bit and dedicate some time in class to small group sessions where we may analyze, debate, and work together on particular legal problems from our cases. Most of us won’t be working alone when we graduate. We’ll be in some team figuring out our client’s problems. The method of asking two or three students questions, who are often just as clueless as the rest of us but pretending to talk “law talk” does little to keep a class of 60 or more students engaged, other than to take mental notes of who might comprise the coveted fraction of students who secure As. Maybe that is too elementary for the halls of Columbia. But too often, I’ve felt like I had to teach myself how to really understand a subject I am paying (a lot of money) for esteemed professors to teach. However rudimentary group sessions or regular writing activities may be, I am sure more hands-on learning will lessen professors’ disappointment when they are bored senseless with mindless regurgitations of rules on final exams.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:03:15 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM