What is advanced legal English?

Confused about advanced legal English? So am I.

The first thing to say is that although students want to learn “advanced” legal English, I’ve never been convinced that thinking about legal English as “advanced” or “basic” is helpful. I think it’s better to think of legal English in a different way and in this post, I’ll explain how I approach legal English.

The first thing to do is define “advanced” legal English, and I would do so as:

“advanced legal English happens when a lawyer correctly applies general and area-specific legal vocabulary in a way the reader can understand.”

Looking at the definition, you might notice a few things:

  • I mention general and area-specific vocabulary, not “advanced” legal English vocabulary.
  • You can see that vocabulary is only a part of the definition.
  • I say that advanced legal English “happens” and “is applies”, i.e. these are actions that might affect other people.
  • I mention a reader – this might surprise a few of you, as you might think ‘what does someone else have to do with me learning advanced legal English?’

Below, I’ll discuss my definition and explain why I think of “advanced” legal English differently.

“General” v “area-specific” legal vocabulary

In my definition, I identify two different types of vocabulary: general legal vocabulary and area-specific legal vocabulary.

General legal vocabulary is the vocabulary that all lawyers should be familiar with as it crosses all areas of law. This might include the general processes of law e.g. going to court, researching law, letter writing/memo drafting, etc. Think of this as the wide base of general legal English knowledge each lawyer should have.

Area-specific vocabulary is, as the name suggests, vocabulary specific to a particular field of law. Some areas of law might have longer lists of vocab than others, but each area of law does have its own legal vocabulary. It is also the case that an area-specific vocabulary list is a lot smaller than that of general legal vocabulary.

All vocab is “advanced legal English”

If you think about legal English vocabulary in this different way, it removes the need to think about vocabulary as being basic or advanced. This is helpful as calling legal English vocabulary “basic” means that a student:

  • might think of it as being less important. A student might spend less time and energy in practicing and mastering “basic” vocabulary,
  • might not worry about the effect of getting this vocab wrong. “Basic” might not suggest it is meritocratic language; however, getting basic vocab wrong will damage a lawyer’s image in front of peers or clients, or
  • will miss the idea that a broad knowledge of legal vocab will help them in their careers. Yes, there are some boutique law firms that specialise in specific areas of law, but most law firms work across many areas of law. Hence, students do need a good and wide basis of general legal English vocab.

So classifying legal English vocab as general or area-specific is more productive from the student’s point of view. This also helps legal English teachers as there might be a student who says “why am I learning employment law, I work in IP”. The legal English teacher can say “this is the general basis of vocab all commercial or academic lawyers need to know”. This is a more convincing argument than “it’s basic legal vocab that’s important”. At least, this argument has helped me win over a few difficult students before.

The good news is that, generally speaking, most legal English coursebooks are organised to reflect general legal vocabulary. The more popular legal English coursebooks have 10-15 chapters covering various areas of law. However, to help legal English teachers (and students) more, I would like future legal English books to stress the above message of general v basic a lot more.

Why not add more areas of legal vocabulary?

Classifying legal English vocab differently as general and area-specific allows you to identify other classifications. For example, one new classification could be ‘passive’ vocabulary.

Here, I would happily put all legal adverbs such as here- and there- words. I would also include all terms that are recognised to be legal English mistakes i.e. ‘and/or’, ‘shall’ and ‘provided that’. This group is passive as all lawyers have to know what the terms mean, but they shouldn’t use them. Why? In learning the words, you should also be learning the problems of using those words – the legal ambiguity each word creates – and the lawyer should use clearer alternatives instead.

It might also be possible to introduce new classifications of legal English soft skills vocabulary. These classifications of vocabulary would give a proper home to the language of negotiations, presentations, or small talk used in a legal context.

Change the focus away from ‘just’ learning vocabulary …

So, now that we’ve classified English vocab differently, let’s change the learner’s focus from ‘just’ learning the vocabulary to thinking about how to use it. This is important as many students think of learning vocabulary as developing a passive skillset. I’ve often met students who say, “I’m going to learn this vocab, and then I’ll know it – job done”. Sadly, this is not the case.

In fact, I’ve highlighted this as being a legal English error in this post. In short, learning vocab shouldn’t just be learning a list of words. Firstly, if everyone could learn lists of legal English vocab in a few months, legal English would be easy to learn. Secondly, this approach completely forgets about the other elements of language – structure – and how to use the vocabulary.

Legal English vocab should be learned in context. This way a student will know how to form a sentence with the vocab and learn related collocations, dependant prepositions, etc. The danger here is that a student might learn vocabulary in a bad context e.g. the vocab is used in old-fashioned bad legal writing. Therefore, the student will learn and repeat the legal writing mistakes from the past.

… on to the application of vocabulary – something that happens

Given that these legal writing mistakes are classifiable and easy to identify, legal English doctrine and legal practice have tried to eliminate these errors over the last 40-50 years. Surely the process of learning new vocabulary should happen in the correct context, i.e. using examples of good legal writing. This would help correct the age-old problem of bad legal writing and promote plain legal English.

Therefore, learning legal English vocabulary should be learned in examples of recognised good legal writing. The student should then use the vocab to mirror the correct writing style. This results in learning vocabulary becoming an active language skillset – a student has to use their language skills to create good legal writing in which they can use the vocab effectively. This also means that students have to be taught the guidelines that promote good legal writing. This is something that is simply not done with International Legal English (the ILEC book) or any of the TOLES vocabulary books or coursebooks.

Always think about the reader

This then brings us towards the last part of the definition, “in a way the reader can understand”. This should be the underlying principle taught to all legal English students. There is no point in learning legal English vocabulary if you can’t communicate effectively to a reader. The same rule applies if you hope to be a commercial lawyer, academic lawyer, or otherwise. You are much less likely to succeed unless you practice writing effectively. Other blogs on this website, indeed my whole course looks at this, so I won’t go into repetitive detail here.

So what is advanced legal English?

In my opinion, it's a complicated process involving a number of factors. Some of which are not obvious to a number of legal English teachers or students. But essentially, it combines thinking about vocabulary in a more productive way, learning how to use it in the best communicative way possible with the end result of being able to inform a reader. Simple really, isn’t it? 😉

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