Online legal English for students from politically disrupted countries

Post by Prof. Stephen Horowitz, Professor of Legal English

One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been increased accessibility and acceptability of online education. And one area this has already provided great benefit in the field of legal English is with online legal English education for students from politically disrupted countries.

Example 1: Female judges fleeing from Afghanistan

I learned this in Spring of 2022 when I was collaborating with Prof. Daniel Edelson of Seton Hall Law School (Daniel is a former legal English colleague from St. John’s Law and founder of on the creation of an online legal English legal writing course to be offered to foreign-educated attorneys in May/June 2022. As we started to make people aware of the course–which we originally anticipated would be of interest to foreign-educated attorneys preparing for the summer bar exam and/or preparing to start an LLM program in the fall–we were contacted by the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR) which, among other activities, had been running a mentoring program that matched US lawyers and judges with female judges in Afghanistan prior to the US military withdrawal.

AIWR explained that in the wake of the US pull-out from Afghanistan, they were working with a cohort of female judges from Afghanistan who had suddenly had to flee their home country and were in various states of migration and dispersed around the world. Some of the judges were in the US or Canada and scheduled to begin a US LLM program in the fall. Others were in the UK or Poland or Japan and less sure about what the next step would be for them. And yet others were in holding patterns, still in refugee camps in the Middle East. “An online legal English program is exactly what these students need right now,” we were told.

So in coordination with AIWR on a pro bono basis we added a cohort of about 15 female judges from Afghanistan to our course. And it worked out tremendously. In addition to teaching the students about the discourse of and expectations for US law school exam writing along with language awareness and strategies for writing well, it also became clear that the course was providing students with a much needed outlet, distraction, and something to look forward to as well as a community of learners to connect with, including with other foreign-educated attorneys law students who were not from Afghanistan. And this was doubly so for students still in refugee camps who often had little to do during the day.

One of the challenges (as you may have guessed) was the wide array of time zones. And our crude yet effective solution was simply to offer an earlier and later class on the days we taught. (After surveying the students, we settled on an earlier time of 9:00 am Eastern Time US and a later time of 12pm on Tuesdays and 8pm on Thursdays.) It’s not the most convenient solution from a teaching perspective, and it also meant that some members of the class didn’t get to meet others. But it was the best solution under the circumstances and ended up working out fine from a teaching perspective. Additionally, Daniel and I were co-teaching the course which provided flexibility for one of us to teach the class when the other had a time conflict.

That said, we both joined and taught together when possible, in part because we wanted to be able to observe and understand more about our students and their learning needs and challenges. Those challenges included students with spotty internet connections and a couple students who didn’t have access to a laptop and were doing the course on their smart phones.

Co-teaching online also turned out to have other benefits including the ability to provide technical/logistical support for each other and the opportunity to download and chat with each other after each class to provide feedback on each others’ teaching approaches and to bounce ideas off each other to make adjustments each time.

We had also designed the course on a learning management system (LMS) on the USLawEssentials website in a way where students would be able to work through the course on their own time in a self-paced manner if they wanted. That is, it was a series of activities that involved readings, explanations, quizzes, and submission of written assignments. Some students took advantage of this flexible feature of the course, though it was clear that it was generally more helpful and motivating for students if they had class time with us to get clarifications and supervised practice and engagement.

The takeaway from this experience was the need in such an online course for maximal flexibility and options. In terms of the course design, in terms of accessibility, in terms of time of day, and in terms of instructors’ ability to collaborate and tag team.

In a law school course, the default mode is that you create a course and set a time, and the students mold their schedules and priorities around the course. However, when working with students under imperfect conditions, there’s a greater need for a flexible, student-centered approach that is able to adapt to student needs.

Example 2: Law students at Ukrainian Universities

The need for online legal English for students in politically disrupted environments arose again in late spring 2022 when I learned there was collaborative effort underway between law faculty from the US and other countries to dialogue with law faculty in Ukraine to figure out ways to support Ukrainian law schools, faculty and students amidst the ongoing Russian invasion and attacks. The collaboration was facilitated with support from the Global Legal Skills community (via Profs. David Austin and Mark Wojcik) as well as from USAID.

Based on our spring course with the students from Afghanistan, Prof. Edelson and I offered several options for an online legal English course: 1) Reading US Cases, 2) Legal Writing, or 3) Fundamentals of the US Legal System. And by August we were contacted by Chernivtsi University and agreed to teach a 10-week fall semester course to their graduate law students on Reading US Cases, again using the USLawEssentials online learning platform.

Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University

At the start, we had little info about the needs and interests of Ukrainian graduate law students outside the fact that Russian missiles were raining down on them with frequency. So we knew we’d have to learn and adapt as we went.

Lesson #1 was that student participation would be somewhat sporadic as a result of attacks on the Ukrainian infrastructure. As the students explained on the first day, they generally have at least a few hours of internet each day. But they don’t necessarily know when they’ll have it. For this reason, we realized the flexibility of our course design would be helpful. Students might not always be able to join the synchronous one-hour video classes each week. But they could still access the self-paced materials and activities on their own time when they had internet.

We also realized the online format was a good fit because Ukrainian university students were had already been in remote learning mode due to the war. What we hadn’t considered was that the students were actually more spread out than we’d anticipated–throughout Ukraine (Chernivtsi, Kyiv and even Zaporizhzhia) but also a couple students in other countries. But with the exception of one student who was in the US–and who ended up having a schedule conflict and was not able to take the course–there were no issues relating to time zones.

Lesson #2 was the need to allow students ample time to talk in class–small talk as well as class talk. This aligned well with a student-centered approach to teaching and included asking students about how they were dealing with the daily challenges of missile strikes, sometimes talking about aspects of the Ukrainian language, sometimes talking about the Los Angeles Lakers (a favorite topic of the program director at Chernivtsi who joined most of the classes), and in one instance sharing about a highly regarded professor from their university who was an officer in the Ukrainian military and was killed in battle the day before one of our classes.

It also meant giving the students a chance to talk in breakout groups or as a class about what they had read or not read from the course materials prior to class, and giving them an opportunity to share with each other what they might have learned prior to class. In other words, creating a community of learners, which is important in an in-person class, but even more so in an online class.

Lesson #3 was that learning a little Ukrainian can go a long way. Before the course started, Daniel and I both decided to start learning Ukrainian on Duolingo, just because. But how much can you really learn from Duolingo in a month? Well, after 30 days we were able to read the Cyrillic alphabet. Not in a fluent way, but we could decode words. And that turned out to be valuable because the students’ names often showed up on Zoom. With a little decoding, though, we could tell if a student was Sofia or Irena or Dimitro without having to sheepishly ask or without having to pretend that we knew the name even if we didn’t.

Lesson #4, based on course feedback, was that a course design that enabled students to engage with course learning in an asynchronous way was appreciated given that access to internet and electricity was sporadic. And in that regard, students also appreciated an interface that was easy and intuitive and required minimal assistance to use.

On a more personal level, lesson #5 for us was something we hadn’t considered previously, which was our own feelings and reactions towards teaching content that felt rather insignificant in the grand scheme in comparison to what our students were living with. How can one talk about whether a sentence from the case should be categorized as facts or procedural history, or whether a Pepsi TV commercial from the 1990s constituted an offer of a Harrier jet under contract law, when students are subjected to daily trauma of air raid alerts amidst other fears? We kept rationalizing that the students likely appreciated a distraction like this course. But was it really true? Fortunately, the students kept returning to class each week when they could. And the course feedback we received afterwards confirmed that they did value the psychological benefits. The students were mentally stressed out, but they also very much wanted to learn and seemed to appreciate the temporary escape.

Final Thoughts

We feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to learn as much as we did–much by trial and error–and to get to know all of the students and better understand what’s involved in learning law in fraught conditions. And we look forward to continuing to work with law students in Ukraine in the spring semester as well as with other students in need of legal English wherever they might be in the world.

We also anticipate that this is far from the end of the road in terms of online legal English needs for students in politically disrupted countries based on observations and recent conversations. And I’ll post additional updates and information here as things evolve.

In the meanwhile, if anyone else is interested in figuring out how to get involved or learning more, please feel free to get in touch with me via this link.

Update: A special thank you to Prof. Christopher J. Kelley of the University of Arkansas Law School (and non-resident professor at the Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University Law Faculty in Kyiv, Ukraine) who contacted me via the Google Form link above and shared about much of his own experience teaching independently–both in person and online–at universities in Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Much of that experience is captured in his enjoyable 2021 article for the Southern Illinois University Law Journal titled, “Teaching Abroad Independently: An Essay.” (PDF) While I wish I had known to read this article before I wrote this blog post, I also realize it was the blog post that led me to learn of the article and of Prof. Kelley.

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