Teacher control vs student control in legal English

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

Giving students more control and more voice makes teaching so much more effective. Yet figuring out how to do it is a process that takes time and effort and does not necessarily come naturally. (At least for me anyway.)

I’m thinking about this topic because of an excellent post on the EAP Essentials blog by Prof. Olwyn Alexander titled “They have to talk and you have to listen: The importance of collaborative conversations in online classrooms.”

The post explains that “Without student talk, the teacher has no immediate way of knowing whether the students understand the materials and tasks and therefore no opportunity to adapt to the in-the-moment needs of the students.”

I think as legal English teachers, most of us intrinsically understand that. We want our students to talk. We want to know what’s going on in their heads. But we’re not always sure how to make that happen. And when it doesn’t happen, it’s easy to shift responsibility to the students, particularly students from certain countries or cultures that teachers perceive as not as talkative in class.

Consequently, I think it’s helpful to be aware of the ways that we, as teachers, get in the way of ourselves and our students. And I think this may be particularly heightened in a legal environment where lawyers and law professors are expected to be sources of knowledge and much of one’s identity as a lawyer or law professor is connected with the ability to share knowledge that others seek or need. In my own experience, this is very true in law schools where the professors–even when they use Socratic method–still often maintain full control of the dialogue and shift frequently from questioner to explainer and knowledge-distributor.

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New podcast: “HowILawyer” by Jonah Perlin

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

In case of interest, my innovative colleague Jonah Perlin (professor of legal practice and advanced legal writing at Georgetown Law) has a new podcast called “HowILawyer” in which he talks to different lawyers about what they do every day, how they do it well, their path to their current position, etc. The idea is to provide a more transparent view of something most of us (myself fully included) knew little about until we left law school and started working. 

In working with LLM students, I’ve previously used and recommended a book called 24 Hours With 24 Lawyers: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers by Jasper Kim with my LLM students. Now I’m happy to be able to point LLM students to this podcast as well.

I found the 24 Hours book, btw, in response to an LLM student from Italy mentioning to me how she found herself at a loss to answer a question from an American lawyer about what kind of law she wanted to practice. In her country, she explained, there were only two answers to such a question: 1) criminal practice, or 2) civil practice (i.e., everything else.) 

In the US, she learned, there are a wide variety of paths and options, and she recognized it was important to know about those just to be able to have intelligent conversations. And I then realized this is an important and valuable area of background or cultural knowledge that LLM students need to acquire. Yet as I looked around, I found relatively few resources for providing this cultural knowledge that are appropriate and easily accessible for LLM students.  

As a result, I’m very thankful that Jonah decided to start this podcast, and I assume it will be a potentially helpful resource for others in the legal English teaching field to be aware of.

Entertaining side note: When I used 24 Hours With 24 Lawyers a few years ago for an LLM summer book club discussion, I realized there was one profile that went right over their heads: An in-house counsel entertainment lawyer for a global adult entertainment company.

Though you and I, the worldly people we are, understand the connotation of “adult entertainment,” my LLM students did not. And as we started our discussion, I realized they also did not fully understand the lawyer’s nuanced description of various other legal issues he had to deal with, nor his description of an end-of-the-day meeting with some “talent” at a fancy bar to discuss a potential video deal. It was on me to awkwardly life the veil. (And it felt sort of like that moment when you explain to a child that Santa Clause is not real. 🙂