We all hear a lot about how difficult law school is before we even set foot in the law school building. The endless reading assignments, the infamous Socratic method and the final exams that determine your entire semester grade. But what if, to add to it all, English isn’t even your primary language? Does it even make sense to try to learn the law, which in and of itself can sound like a language of its own, in a language that is not your own? Are you setting yourself up for failure? My answer is no, not even remotely.
Learn a New Language
When English is your second language, you already have one skill mastered – learning a new language. Take advantage of it because so many of your classmates may have studied a second language at some point in school, but certainly cannot communicate in it as well as you can in English.
Once you begin your studies, or maybe even before you do, you will become familiar with the term “legalese.” It’s a term describing the legal language lawyers and legal scholars use when communicating legal concepts. While it makes us sound smart and “lofty” in an educational setting, it can often fire back against us when trying to communicate our thoughts to non-lawyers, such as our clients or juries. Hence, you will probably be often advised to avoid using legalese but instead to use every day English once you graduate.
In the meantime, while you’re completing your reading assignments which consist of lengthy opinions written primarily in legalese, take advantage of your language skills. Treat learning the law the same way you did learning English. Figure out the meaning of terms based on context and then become comfortable with using them on your own in class. Embrace the language of the law as your third language, and, before you know it, you’ll be fluent.
Don’t see Yourself as “Less Than”
Resist the urge to see yourself as less than your classmates simply because English is their native tongue. You will encounter plenty of well-meaning individuals in both your educational and social setting, who will suggest to you that because English is your second language, you are doing phenomenal just by having been accepted to law school. Is getting accepted to law school a tremendous accomplishment? Absolutely. But don’t stop there.
Clearly, you are an ambitious individual. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have made it this far. Don’t allow yourself to enter into a mindset where a C or a B is enough of an accomplishment, when you know you are well capable of getting an A. Again, the fact that English is your second language is not a handicap – it’s an advantage.
Seek Help When you Need it
At the same time, don’t go it alone. Even the students around you whose primary language is English will struggle in the first year. Law school is a whole new world, and it is hard. If you find that you are having trouble keeping up with the material, reach out to your professors or teaching assistants. They are there to help you and are more than eager to do so.
Similarly, if your first semester grades are not exactly what you were hoping for, make an appointment to meet with your professors. Ask them about the areas where they think you can improve. See if there is a pattern of mistakes you make across all subjects. It could be an easy fix. If you need more help, reach out to us at the Law School Toolbox.
During my first year, I found that I made two mistakes across all subjects – I argued one side instead of both, and I reached my conclusions too quickly without first showing each step of my thinking process. When this was pointed out to me by Alison Monahan and one of my professors, my grades improved dramatically. It wasn’t that I was not understanding the material, but rather my presentation of it that was my pitfall. Don’t sell yourself short and reach out to others when help is always available.
To sum up, yes, you will have endless reading assignments, you will be subjected to the Socrates method and you will have to excel on final exams in order to get a good final grade in law school. But, no, it’s not a task too steep for a student where English is their second language. Apply the three tips above and see yourself accomplish great things. Good luck!
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