5 Tips for Teaching Foreign Law Students (Webinar Recap)

By Caitlin Hunter

As U.S. law schools recruit a growing number of foreign students, law librarians are increasingly called upon to teach students who are new to the U.S. education system. On December 5, four librarians discussed their experiences teaching foreign law students, in a webinar moderated by Jessica Pierucci (FCIL librarian at UCI Law) and featuring panelists Jodi Collova (Director of LL.M. Legal Research and Writing at Berkeley Law), Karina Condra (FCIL librarian at Sturm College of Law), Heidi Frostestad Kuehl (Director of the Law Library at NIU Law), and Mike McArthur (FCIL librarian at Duke Law). Panelists described teaching foreign law students in a variety of contexts, ranging from short, pre-semester introductions to U.S. law for LL.M.s to full semester research and writing classes including a mix of LL.M. and JD students. The full webinar is available here.

Here were my key take-aways on how to help foreign law students succeed:

  1. Recognize students’ individuality and diversity.

It’s important to prepare for common struggles faced by foreign students but it’s equally important to recognize the diversity of cultures and individual personalities.

Some students need to be encouraged to speak up; others need guidance on interjecting tactfully. Some students need to be encouraged to visit their professors during office hours; others need to be warned that U.S. professors will not provide the level of handholding they expect.

  1. Teach students how U.S. law school works.

Things that are obvious to a librarian who completed law school in the U.S. and has worked at a U.S. law library for years are not obvious to a 25-year-old who just got off a plane from China.

Librarians can help students succeed in all of their classes by pointing them to resources that they may not know about, such as:

  • Study aids, online and in print.
  • Legal dictionaries. Show students where to find English legal dictionaries and discuss how the same word can mean different things in conversational versus legal English.
  • Office hours and research and writing help. Students may not realize that they can visit professors during office hours. Likewise, they may not be aware of the school’s writing center or know that they can ask reference librarians for advice on citations, research for other classes, and research in practice. Tell them!

Also, alert students to norms that may differ between the U.S. and their home countries, such as:

  • The Socratic Method and active participation. Many students are from cultures where being a good student means staying quiet and taking notes. Clearly explaining the different expectations in the U.S. can make students more comfortable speaking up.
  • In many countries, it’s normal for classes to start a half-hour or more after the posted time. Let students know that classes in the U.S. start at the posted time.
  • U.S. students are drilled from elementary school onwards to use their own words, rather than copying from the book. However, anyone who has ever taught U.S. law students knows how many of them struggle to understand what this means in practice. The problem is multiplied for foreign students who may have been taught that they should copy directly from the book to show respect for established scholars. Talk with students about the importance of using quotation marks and providing attribution in U.S. education.

Of course, many of these norms (especially the Socratic Method) are new to most law students. LL.M.s can benefit from participating in JD orientation, where they can join their American classmates in learning to brief cases and participating in mock law school classes.

However, foreign students face a particularly steep learning curve. LL.M.s may not know how to read a case at the beginning of the semester and, yet, by the end of the semester they must compete on exams with third year JDs.

  1. Create assignments that set students up for success.

Foreign law students are getting used to U.S.-style legal assignments and are typically reading and writing in a foreign language, so try the following:

  • Stay away from big stakes final exams and assignments with tight time limits and use a mix of methods to assess students.
  • Start the semester by having students memorize basic legal terms and then quizzing them. This gives students necessary U.S. legal vocabulary and memorization is familiar and comfortable for students from many countries.
  • Always provide written instructions.

Most foreign law students come from civil law jurisdictions, where law is based primarily on statutes with little to no emphasis on cases. These students tend to excel at dissecting and applying statutes but struggle with analogizing and distinguishing cases. To make the transition easier for students from civil law countries:

  • Start the semester with problems based on statutes and other codes, such as the evidence code, procedural rules, or rules of professional conduct for attorneys.
  • When introducing case law, provide exercises that teach students to make fact-to-fact comparisons between cases, rather than simply mining cases for sweeping rules.
  • Tailor cases and add discussion questions to make them more manageable. Have students discuss and compare cases as a group.

Although most of the librarians primarily taught legal research, they reported that many students’ biggest struggle was actually with writing and suggested the following:

  • Add a short memo or scholarly paper to a legal research class.
  • Try Plain English for Lawyers to help non-native English speakers get comfortable with English mechanics and help native English-speakers transition to the plainer American style from the more flowery style common in some other English-speaking jurisdictions.
  • During class, walk students through writing techniques that are less commonly used in other countries, such as drafting issue statements, case analysis and synthesis, and outlining.
  1. Be approachable.

Mike notes that:

Nothing can replace a positive, approachable attitude. Your demeanor conveys more than anything else and it can open and close doors with students.

He makes a point of participating in orientation week activities, such as lunches and barbecues, which provide opportunities to bring up differences in educational styles in a casual environment, where students can compare experiences with each other.Nothing can replace an approachable attitude

He also hosts a regular discussion group, where foreign students and scholars meet to discuss articles that he selects on unfamiliar U.S. legal topics that interest them, such as the mechanics of impeachment and why it’s surprising when Justice Thomas speaks.

Similarly, Karina coordinates an orientation event where incoming LL.M.s meet with four or five faculty, so that they can get to know and feel comfortable with their teachers and fellow students before classes start.

  1. Help students learn from each other.

Most students enjoy explaining how their own legal systems work and it’s easy to create opportunities for them to do so:

  • Ask for volunteers to discuss how the legal system and law in their jurisdiction differs from the U.S.
  • Encourage students to work together in class by pairing LL.M.s and JDs on in class assignments, grouping students from a mix of jurisdictions to discuss how a topic differs in their jurisdictions, or assigning students from a mix of jurisdictions to practice groups or firms to complete assignments.
  • Encourage students to get to know each other outside of class, by introducing JDs and LL.M.s, encouraging JDs to attend LL.M. events, and encouraging LL.M.s to participate in student organizations and journals.

The panelists universally agreed that foreign law students bring immense value to classes and that giving them the opportunity to share their perspectives provides invaluable benefits to other LL.M.s and JDs alike.

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