The Special Challenge of LL.M. Students

By Jim Hart

animated-question-mark-clip-art-Kijead5iqLL.M. students face a challenge that is more daunting than the one our J.D. students face; their knowledge of their own legal systems and legal publications interferes with their learning of ours.  Indeed, it is something like learning another language.  At the beginning, it’s like doing a puzzle in which all the pieces fit.  You learn it at this stage by comparing the foreign language to your own language.  At the intermediate stage, the two languages are no longer always comparable.  A lot of pieces of the puzzle don’t fit any more and it’s confusing.  At the advanced stage students don’t compare the languages anymore.  The foreign language has become separate from the native language.  Using it is now unconscious.

At the beginning of the semester, many LL.M.s don’t seem to have a clear idea of why they have to learn legal research.  But as the semester goes by, they become increasingly engaged.  I think that the reason for this apparent disengagement at the beginning is that, like American students, the U.S. legal system is entirely new to them.  American J.D. students, on the other hand, come to law without any previous idea to interfere with their learning the system.  LL.M. students, however, are already trained in their home legal systems.

Lawyers are experts in the legal systems of their own countries, including gazettes, codes, and other publications.  Their knowledge is highly complex, implicit, and entirely automatic to them.  They have used it as professionals for some period of time.  It would be nearly impossible for such knowledge not to interfere with new learning!  Let me explain.  We represent knowledge in our minds in structures.  It doesn’t matter whether you call them schemata (sg. schema), or mental models, or frames as used by Minsky.  These structures are organized hierarchically with more general concepts encompassing more specific ones and specific concepts encompassing particular instances.  Students are just learning these concepts and structures, but experts have become so adept at using them that they are unconscious of their use.  In other words, experts use them automatically.

So when lawyers from other countries try to learn our legal system and its publications, they will find that the two systems do not have the same structures.  Some aspects of their native systems may not have corresponding features in ours at all and ours will have some aspects that their systems lack, not to mention those aspects that are partially congruent.  To make things worse, our legal publications form a bibliographic system that adds another system to the complexity.  If the foreign students come from a civil law tradition, they may have difficulty with the need for the volumes of case reporters that are essential to a common law system.  Our codes may seem like a disorganized hodgepodge of laws to someone who is used to codes that are written like philosophical treatises.  But, as they learn more about our system, they see the usefulness of our tools of legal research.

So I believe that our LL.M. students begin learning our system by comparing elements of theirs to ours.  As they learn more, they go through a period of confusion from which they emerge near the end of a semester.  At this point, they no longer compare their native system to ours.  They understand ours as a second, independent one.  This explanation is simplistic of course.  This is a blog post, after all.  I hope this will do.

I suspect that there is no complete solution to this problem.  But I also suspect that giving the LL.M. students an overview of our system that includes the bibliographic aspects at the beginning of the semester and reminding students of the role (purpose?) of the relevant publications in the system when they study them might both help.  In addition, this kind of experience can suck their self-confidence right out of them.  Give them sympathy and encouragement.  Of course a little tea and crumpets wouldn’t hurt either.

In summary, the idea is to link the structure and content of the legal system with the concomitant publications.

AALL 2015 Recap: “International Attorneys and LL.M. Students: Filling Research Gaps”

By Alexis Fetzer

scalesThe late Sunday afternoon session entitled “International Attorneys and LL.M. Students: Filling Research Gaps” targeted librarians working with international students in an instructional setting. Each speaker presented on his or her experience working with foreign LL.M. students.

The first of the three speakers was Jinwei Zhang, Reference and Instructional Technologies Librarian at the University of Tennessee School of Law. Ms. Zhang had a unique experience in that she had been a foreign LL.M. student herself. She began by discussing some of the unique challenges instructors face in teaching these students, such as language barriers, cultural differences, and introducing a new legal system. One cultural difference that Zhang emphasized was a reluctance to ask questions in class. Many of these students are coming from learning environments in which they are not encouraged to interrupt a lecturer with comments or questions. It is important to be patient and encouraging of these students in order to get them to open up in class. One suggestion offered was instituting more one on one meetings with students in order to get them comfortable talking to instructors and to answer any questions that they are too uncomfortable to pose before an entire class.

Nina Scholtz, Head of Reference Services & Instruction Coordinator at Cornell University Law School, was the second of three speakers. Ms. Scholtz spoke on her experience as an academic law librarian instructing LL.M. students in legal research in their Principles of American Legal Writing course. In this course she instructs students in four class sessions and then works with students individually on their research for writing projects.

One challenge she highlighted was the difficulty in overcoming language barriers for legal citation abbreviations. It is important for instructors to keep in mind that what appears to make sense in the English speaker’s mind as an abbreviation for a court or publication may not always translate clearly to the foreign student. An instructor should look for ways to make this easier for students to understand and should be able to point to resources that can assist students in abbreviating or deciphering abbreviations of citations.

Scholtz shared one of the exercises she performed with her students, entitled “Thinking like a Common Law Lawyer.” This exercise focuses on the factual analysis that needs to take place before students can begin tackling legal research. Students are tasked with finding the basis of the case, generating search terms, and looking to other synonyms and antonyms of those terms. After the class performs this exercise together as a whole, students are broken up into smaller groups and given the same type of assignment with a different fact pattern.

The final speaker was Furman Scott DeMaris, Research Services Librarian at Reed Smith LLP, who spoke of his experience as a firm librarian when Reed Smith took on several Chinese LL.M. students as apart of work-study program with Temple University School of Law. One thing the firm did was to offer research refreshers and training for these students. Mr. Demaris found that it was important to let these students know that the librarians were there to assist them, because otherwise they might not have identified the librarians as a resource. Research guides were also offered to students on topics such as how to avoid research pitfalls and how to perform cost effective research. One challenge in hosting these LL.M. students was that, because they were guests rather than employees, they could not be given access to all of the firm’s resources. At the end of their time with Reed Smith, the students were asked to give a presentation on Chinese Law. This was a great way take advantage of the special knowledge of these foreign educated attorneys and to educate the firm’s attorneys on a foreign legal system.

After the final speaker, attendees were asked to discuss amongst members seated at their table the challenges in training foreign attorneys in an LL.M. instructional program or similar setting. The microphone was then opened for attendees to share and for the speakers to answer any questions.