Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh

June 8, 2000

Teaching lawyers the languages of the law: French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese

Teaching lawyers the languages of the law: French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese

Two law students, one American, the other French, meet on a ocean liner, become romantically involved, and find themselves ensnared in a criminal plot by an evil professor.

The latest "Austin Powers" movie? No, it's the plot of a 5-act thriller penned by a Pitt law professor. And it is one of the readings in the law school's French for Lawyers course, which is part of an innovative foreign languages program.

The brainchild of associate professor Vivian Curran, the Languages for Lawyers Program is the first of its kind in the United States.

Prior to getting her law degree, Curran earned a Ph.D. in French literature and taught French for several years.

"When I came to Pitt, my first thought was to teach a French course here through the language department. But then I thought a French course taught in a legal context for law students would be enormously helpful in today's global society."

Curran, who directs the languages program, said she was familiar with textbooks for business in a legal context, but none for foreign languages. So she created the text from her course materials.

"Learning French Through the Law" is now the standard text in the course and has been translated into Spanish (with modifications for the Spanish legal system). Other languages taught at the law school include German and Chinese, with Japanese to debut this fall.

The goal of French for Lawyers is to teach American law students sufficient French to communicate with French-speaking clients and to understand references to the French legal system that might arise in an international law practice.

"But it's not a law course in the sense of learning how to draw up contracts or that sort of thing," Curran said. "We are training our students here to practice United States law. But in these courses we develop a capacity to communicate with clients who are from foreign countries by focusing on legal vocabulary. Students also need, if possible, to have some insight into a foreign legal culture so when their clients don't understand an American legal concept, they can help them."

The instruction in the French course emphasizes French and English legal terms with similar derivations, spelling and sound. Cognates such as client, avocat, coupable (client, advocate, culpable) are combined with rudimentary grammar in dialogue and reading passages all presented in the framework of legal themes. No prior knowledge of French is required.

Curran said the combination of simple grammatical structures and sophisticated vocabulary means that complex concepts can be expressed almost immediately. "The level of communication very quickly was way beyond my expectations," she said, partly because law students are highly motivated.

A secondary goal of the course is for students to learn to appreciate cultural differences, Curran said.

"We hope some of the French legal culture seeps through," she said. "For example, attorneys in France are addressed by their professional titles: Ma”tre Martin (Attorney Martin). The French put emphasis on politeness and on social and professional hierarchy, which is conveyed in the ways characters in the textbook dialogues address each other. Often there are no accurate equivalents in English."

Curran acknowledged that some of the examples in her textbook need to be updated since they refer to hot-button legal topics of the early 1990s.

Pitt's languages program is catching on, Curran said, as several other law schools have added variations of the courses to their curricula. "I wrote an article in 1992 describing the French course and I got a lot of responses. At Duke, they've just copied it in their international program."

She said law schools with strong study abroad programs, like Tulane, now are offering foreign language courses.

"The program is fantastic and it gets us a lot of attention," said Dean David Herring. "Just recently, a university in Poland contacted us about developing a similar program there."

The courses originally were offered as non-credit, but now students can count up to 4 credits in languages toward their law degree. "These courses are now also accepted for continuing legal education credit," Herring said. "We scheduled classes in the evenings to allow some local attorneys to attend."

The program is a good recruiting tool too, Herring said.

Third-year law student Tiffany Ford agreed. "I ultimately chose to pursue my legal education at Pitt because the School of Law offers language classes for lawyers," she said. "My primary focus in law school is international law, and I plan to use my degree in an international setting."

Ford, who is pursuing a joint law and business degree, said that French for Lawyers taught her the structure of the French legal system, including how the court system works and how the legal profession differs from that in the United States. "I anticipate that such knowledge will aid me when interacting with French and European attorneys in the future, as well as help me better advise clients whose legal needs involve knowledge of law beyond the borders of the U.S.," Ford said.

Herring said an outgrowth of the languages program is the English for Lawyers course the school now offers through its Center for International Legal Education. Two Pitt associate professors of legal writing, Teresa Brostoff and Ann Sinsheimer, teach the three-week intensive course under Curran's direction. "We're one of the very few law schools to offer this type of course," Herring said.

The English course is designed for international law students studying for the master of legal letters (LL.M.) degree. Students typically have a basic knowledge of English but are unfamiliar with American legal language and the legal system. The course teaches protocol in American law school classrooms and includes site visits to trials, courthouses and jails.

"Now LL.M. students from other law schools enroll in English for Lawyers here and then return to their schools," Herring said.

Curran said that to some extent the foreign languages courses teach comparative law, which is her specialization. "I think, for me, all my intellectual passions stem from the fact that different languages are the key to opening the door to a different world. What fascinates me so much about foreign legal systems is their relation to a different culture. I'm happy there's a growing perspective that we should be encouraging our students to learn foreign languages."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature, Volume 32 Issue 20

Email This Post Email This Post