Ways to improve legal english

If you are a lawyer, a law student or a legal professional from outside the UK, you will know that Legal English is vastly different from General English or even Business English.  

Our tutors spend a lot of their time with lawyers and one of the most important issues that they mention is their need to express themselves effectively.  The need to build relationships with clients and colleagues, the desire to share ideas and opinions and the overall need to communicate is as natural as drawing breath.  When we are unable to do this, we suffer both personally and professionally.  

Legal English is used and spoken in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and dozens of commonwealth nations.  If you are a lawyer working at or aspiring to work at a transnational law practice, you will need to develop a sophisticated knowledge of English.

How do I speak better Legal English?

By communicating in English with more fluency and clarity, you will open so many doors in your career and in life.  However, you will need a private language tutor.  A competent teacher will definitely help but if you are unable to afford one or if you need to allocate your time effectively then there are other ways to improve your language skills.  

How do I become proactive?

Without a dedicated instructor, you will have to accept more responsibility for your learning.  Remember to create your own learning programme with small steps to follow.  Reward yourself when these goals have been reached.  

1. Learn some fixed expressions and try them with other English speakers.  

Here are some examples:

  • In the meantime
  • To tell the truth
  • On the other hand

Any conversation will feature at least one or two of these expressions, so knowing just a few will help you to communicate.  

In the above examples, those phrases usually appear at the beginning of a sentence but make sure you know the most appropriate position for the expression.  Remember to also pay attention to the stress of each word and of course, the overall meaning.  

2.  Improve your knowledge of collocations.

In Legal English, there are words that are frequently used together.

This is a difficult aspect of English to learn as there are a wide variety of collocations used and if you get a word incorrect, it does look out of place.

In law, there are many fixed collocations that have been used for hundreds of years so to use a substitute verb or adjective will be wrong.  

  • To dismiss an application
  • To discharge an invoice/an obligation/a duty
  • To award damages

3. Listen to and imitate your favourite TV lawyers

Luckily, the law is loved by TV companies and there are hundreds of hours of legal dramas to choose from.  One fun way to spend a few minutes is to play some clips from YouTube of a TV lawyer and attempt to replicate what they have said (choose something from a court trial or a client interview ideally).  For added value, record or film what you say and play it back to see what you did right or wrong.  

4. Read legal texts aloud

Fluid legal writing is hard to find, but if you can find it then it is a joy to read.  Examine case reports and scripts from books on English and Law and read them aloud.  Record your speech on audio or video and play it back.  By doing this. you will become more confident at using unfamiliar sounds as well as understanding legal words and phrases that might not be in coursebooks.

5. Know how to interrupt successfully

If you are a successful international lawyer, there is a high chance that you will be participating in several meetings a week.  It is likely that there will be Brits or Americans in that meeting and so you are going to have to learn which words to use when you wish to make an effective contribution to the discussion.

6. Try paraphrasing more

If you watch many successful politicians (Obama), salespeople (Trump) and lawyers (take your pick), you may notice that they paraphrase or repeat themselves frequently.  It is also a useful way for non-native speakers to make sure that they have been understood.  

7. Understand and use phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are an obsession with our Spanish-speaking lawyers, and for good reason because they are regularly used in Legal English.  To clarify:  A phrasal verb is a verb used with a preposition or adverb to create a new verb.  Here are some examples of legal phrasal verbs:

  • To file away
  • To object to
  • To draw up

8. Take a Test of Legal English Skills

While we have mentioned having small goals to reach during your quest for mastery of the English language and Law, having a bigger goal in the shape of the a Legal English language test is a good idea.  It will give you more focus than you would otherwise have and as there are currently three exams (TOLES Foundation, TOLES Higher and TOLES Advanced), you can have a good idea of where your level is.  Exams take place throughout the year and you can take them at an accredited test centre in London or elsewhere.  We have plans to introduce our own Legal English examination in 2017.

9. Develop strong vocal tonality

If you are seeking to gain the respect of your peers then you will need to demonstrate authority.  Do not mumble, speak clearly and lower your voice.  This applies to everything from public speaking to ordering a beer in the pub.  

10. Enjoy the whole process of learning

Learning any language is a journey and you will need to dedicate a significant amount of your time to practising it.  Do not consider the learning process to be a chore as that will only deter you from your goals.  Seek to have fun and to engage with the language in every way you can.  

11. Understand more about your language

By understanding more about your own language, you should be able to develop a curiosity about the language that you are learning.  This phonemenon happens to language teachers all the time - as we train and learn about the language that we are teaching, we develop almost a sixth sense about other languages as well.  

12. Analyse stress in words and sentences

English is a stressful language in more ways than one!  If you are going to pronounce words correctly, you will have to listen to a lot of the language as the sounds change from word to word.  Good speakers of English also put a stronger emphasis on key words so try exercises relating to this when you are able.

13. Practise spelling words and saying numbers and dates out loud

If you work in the cuthroat world of commercial law, you will need to know your numbers.  We have lost count of the number of times we have heard lawyers, uh, lose count.  By practising how to say numbers and dates you will gain more confidence in Business English and it will be particularly helpful for telephone calls where you are unable to see the other person.

14. Understand English through poetry or rap

A poet is defined as somebody who "possesses special powers of imagination or expression."  Many lawyers with a knowledge of literature and poetry believe that they have an edge over their colleagues in terms of their gift for imagination and language.  It is a useful weapon to brandish in the courtroom or the meeting room.  

15. Use rejoinders

A rejoinder is a short response - usually witty in nature.  If you are of intermediate level, try basic level responses such as "I agree", "No problem" or "You're joking", but once you reach advanced level you should be looking to use humour, irony and sarcasm in your comments with friends and close colleagues.

16. When in conversation, use contractions and ellipsis.   However, when you are writing, write every word

If you listen to any native speaker, notice how they miss words out during conversation. This is to save time and because it is more natural to speak this way.  In the examples below, you will see a natural sentence and the longer version.

"He's tried to buy the book, but he can't find it (the book)"

"He has tried to buy the book, but he cannot find the book"

Please treat these examples as an exaggeration as when people write conversation they will tend to write it in short form.

17. Become a great storyteller and use narrative tenses

If you witness a competent barrister in a courtroom, you will feel as if you are watching a great theatre actor perform a play.  The best communicators tell interesting stories filled with strong intonation, luminous vocabulary and narrative tenses.  In telling the story, try and use more progressive forms of the tenses as it makes the narrative more dramatic.

18. Learn to pause

An unconfident person will speak quietly and quickly for fear that people will stop listening or talk over them.  If you are going to succeed as a competent international lawyer, you have to present a confident image.  Actors and politicians use pauses effectively to ensure that the audience remains with them.  Have the confidence to do this and use language to ensure that people continue to listen to you.

Source: https://www.legalenglish.co.uk/