The Need for Bilingual Legal Education

istock-609905366-heads-peopleS.I. Strong, Katia Fach Gómez and Laura Carballo Piñeiro examine the case for multilingual legal education in a globalized world.For centuries, the close connection between language and the state has fostered the presumption that legal education must be provided in a single language. However, monolingual legal education may be in jeopardy if one is to believe the comments of international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Centre for Higher Education (UNESCO-CEPES), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), who have all remarked upon the need to increase the number of bilingual lawyers in the world.

A number of countries have started to embrace bilingual or even multilingual legal education, although the underlying rationales vary from country to country. For example, some jurisdictions turn to bilingual education to make their universities and/or law graduates more competitive in a global market. Other countries offer courses in multiple languages in order to be more responsive to the demands of their citizenry and increase access to justice.

Unfortunately, this movement has been thwarted by the lack of discussion, let alone consensus, about what constitutes best practices in bilingual education. To some extent, techniques may differ depending on the end goals. For example, some jurisdictions may wish to increase bilingual legal education to address the significant and potentially growing number of citizens, residents and visitors who have limited proficiency in the language taught national law schools. If a sufficient number of lawyers are not capable of conversing in these other languages, certain segments of society will not be able to obtain useful legal advice and assistance.

Law students also need to learn how to function in a globalized world. Traditionally the emphasis was on preparing internationally inclined lawyers for a career in international diplomacy, but the world of international commerce is equally in need of lawyers with foreign language skills.

Many “international” curricula fail their students because the focus is primarily if not exclusively on matters of substantive law. Furthermore, an inordinate emphasis has traditionally been placed on courses relating to public international law, which deals with state-to-state issues, even though career opportunities in public international law are highly competitive and relatively stable. Instead, the area that has seen the most growth as a result of globalization is private international law, which involves matters relating to private individuals and companies.

Substantive law is, of course, a critical component of a student’s legal education. However, the only way to prepare young lawyers to work with clients, colleagues or co-counsel in a second language is to teach law students how to read, analyze and discuss legal concepts in a second language.

Some people believe that conversational fluency, supplemented by a good bilingual legal dictionary, is all that is needed to provide legal advice across linguistic barriers. In fact, nothing could be more dangerous. Law is intimately bound up in a particular cultural and legal context, and bilingual lawyers must be do more than simply acquire a specialized vocabulary. Instead, a lawyer functioning in a foreign language must be able to understand how certain concepts are interpreted and applied within a foreign legal system or by a client with limited proficiency in the majority language. Therefore, specialized coursework concerning bilingual lawyering is necessary if law students are to learn how to practice in multiple languages.

It is also critically important that students understand the cultural and legal environment in which they are preparing to work. What is considered an appropriate practice in one country can be a huge faux pas in another. Lawyers who are “tone deaf” in their written or spoken communications do neither themselves nor their clients any favors. Some help in this regard may be forthcoming as the result of the work of the International Academy of Comparative Law, which will be considering bilingual education in 2018 at its upcoming World Congress in Japan. While comparativists have considered bilingual legal education in the past, one hopes that the 2018 Congress provides tangible guidelines in how students and instructors can and should proceed.

S.I. Strong is Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, US,  Katia Fach Gómez is Professor of Law at the University of Zaragoza and Laura Carballo Piñeiro is Professor of Law, University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Their book Comparative Law for Spanish-English Lawyers: Legal Cultures, Legal Terms and Legal Practices / Derecho comparado para abogados anglo- e hispanoparlantes: Culturas jurídicas, términos jurídicos y prácticas jurídicas is out now.

Read the introductory chapter free on Elgaronline.

This blog piece is also available in Spanish


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