Activities for teaching cross-cultural competence via LLM-JD interaction

Post by Stephen Horowitz, Professor of Legal English

Recently on the Legal Writing Institute listserv, a request was made for examples of ways to help teach cross-cultural competency. And I shared with the requester the following two activities from when I worked at St. John’s Law which I think were very effective for both teaching cross-cultural competency and also for fostering interaction between JD and LLM students. I think they also helped shift perspectives away from a deficit mindset of LLM students and toward a view that recognizes and takes advantage of the asset that LLM students are to a US law school.

Activity #1: Legal Writing Role Play

This activity involved collaboration between an LLM legal writing section and a JD writing section. It was the result of brainstorming with the JD legal writing professor and coming up with a plan based on the legal writing assignment the JD students would already be doing. The role play would explain to both the JD and LLM students that they were associates in a global law firm but in offices in different countries. And they had no previous relationship or interaction.

  • The LLM students were each given the name and email of a student from the JD class.
  • The LLM students were instructed to send an email to their JD student introducing themselves and explaining that they were in the [non-US location] office and working on a client matter that had to factor in the likelihood of a certain area of law in the US. The LLM students then had to ask their JD student for a summary explanation of the area of law.
  • (Not so coincidentally, this was the exact area of law that the JD students had just finished researching and writing about.)
  • The JD students then had to reply with their summary explanation.
  • The LLM students could then reply with any follow-up questions.

Fairly simple and straightforward. Very little additional work required on the part of either side. And the JD class professor loved the idea of a task that required her students to summarize their research and writing for a different audience.

Both sides greatly enjoyed the assignment and the interaction. They had fun with it and in some cases got to know each other better. But according to the JD legal writing professor, the most challenging aspect of the assignment, and the part that her class spent the most time discussing, was: How do I address my LLM counterpart in the email? First name? Surname? And which is the first name and which is the surname? And which name do I lead with?

An additional layer that revealed itself organically is that there were a few students in the JD class who had transferred to the JD program after completing the LLM program. So they became valued sources of cultural knowledge within the JD class.

Overall, it was a fantastic and successful experience for all involved. That said, if anyone considers trying this activity, there are a few logistical obstacles to consider. First, it helps if your school has a separate legal writing section for LLM students. Second, in this case, the number of LLM and JD students just happened to match up exactly. Though of course some students could always double up if the numbers didn’t quite match up. And third, it takes a bit of getting people out of their silos and planning before or early in the semester so everyone can plan their schedules accordingly.

It also helps if there are opportunities for the JD and LLM instructors to get to know each other and have some sort of relationship in advance. Collaborating is a lot easier when you have familiarity and comfort with others. In our case, I had been organizing a series of professional development discussions for LLM instructors. And we had invited the JD legal writing professor to join us to discuss alternative approaches to creating a syllabus. And the idea for collaboration sprung from spending that time together.

But now that a bit of a template exists, perhaps it can be helpful for facilitating this type of collaboration. If anyone out there tries it, I’d love to hear about it and the whole experience!

Activity #2: Client Interview Preparation

This idea sprung from a conversation I had with the director of the Elder Law Clinic at St. John’s Law. I knew that LLM students often had interest in the clinics courses but the courses were not available to them. And when I mentioned that to the director, she mentioned that her JD students do practice client intake interviews to prepare for the actual client intake interviews that they’ll do. She explained that generally the students play the role of clients for each other to practice. And she explained that many of their actual clients come from other cultures and often don’t have English as their first language. So we discussed the possibility of LLM students stepping into the role of clients for practice purposes.

The director had a series of handouts with background information about hypothetical clients that could be given to LLM students in advance. So I just needed to recruit LLM students who might be interested. And there was plenty of interest.

The next step was to send each LLM student their role play instructions. And the director matched each LLM student with a JD student and made sure they had each others’ email addresses. The students then figured out a time to meet in the clinic conference room in the law school and conduct the practice interview. I also held a voluntary session with the LLM students to give them an opportunity to read through their instructions and characters and ask me any questions if anything wasn’t clear. (They didn’t really have any questions.)

After all the practice interviews were completed, the director held a class for everyone to download and share their experiences. I and the participating LLM students were all invited. And it turned out to be a super fun and eye opening conversation. A number of JD students talked about realizing and figuring out how to better and more clearly communicate what they wanted to communicate. And the LLM students were very impressed with the professionalism of the JD students and the whole notion of a simulated law firm within the law school. It was a fascinating and exciting window for them into US legal culture. Plus our LLM students now had one more friendly face to say hi to when passing in the hallways of the law school!

Again, if anyone has done or decides to try an activity along these lines, I would love to hear about it, so please feel free to share!

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