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Cream, Please, and Other Legal Matters:
Workshop for foreign lawyers explains legal system, language…and culture

The summer, 2000, English for Lawyers class. Housed in the University’s Center for International Legal Education, the three- week workshop helps prepare students from diverse cultural backgrounds to enter U.S. law schools.
When you consider what it might take to teach a foreign lawyer about the U.S. legal system, you wouldn’t think that one of the first classes could include a lesson on the various kinds of milk available in our grocery stores. One foreign lawyer studying U.S. law in the University of Pittsburgh’s English for Lawyers summer program bought chocolate milk for his coffee—several times—before hitting on the right choice.

That’s just one example of the kinds of cultural adjustments a foreign lawyer can experience when coming to Pitt for an introduction to American law and legal English. Taught by Teresa Brostoff and Ann Sinsheimer, associate professors of legal writing in Pitt’s School of Law, the three-week course prepares foreign students who hold a law degree in their home countries and are in the U.S. to earn a Master’s of Law (L.L.M.) degree.

The program is housed in the University’s Center for International Legal Education (CILE). Students enrolled in Pitt’s program often remain here to begin work on their L.L.M. degree in the fall; some will go to other U.S. schools for their degree. Most are practicing attorneys; occasionally judges enroll in the program.

According to Brostoff and Sinsheimer, because international business is commonplace today, there is a real need to prepare students from diverse cultural backgrounds to enter U.S. law schools.

“We’re not teaching them the English language, but the reasoning process of judges when they make decisions,” said Sinsheimer.

Another aspect of their education is how statutes are used in a common law system, which is quite different from a civil law system, explained Brostoff.

“Civil law system countries are all code, all statutory law, all made by legislatures. So, at least theoretically, judges don’t make law in civil law countries,” said Sinsheimer.

And because the classes are taught in English, students are able to accumulate legal terminology, and learn how to use the English language in the legal context.

There has been an increase in these types of programs across the country, said Sinsheimer. Most are housed within English language institutes; Pitt’s program is one of the few that is part of its law school.


While learning the language and legal aspects of U.S. law, students also gain a better understanding of the U.S. education system. Being active learners and asking questions are new to some students, who find that style of learning difficult at first. The law school environment also goes one step beyond traditional American education, because professors routinely call on the students and expect them to be prepared to participate on a moment’s notice.

“These students are used to straight lectures, which they can choose to attend or not to attend, and

they take an exam at the end. So, having to be there every day and having to be prepared for class is quite a shock to them,” said Brostoff. “We have a fairly rigorous workload, and we expect them to keep up and to participate.”

English for Lawyers Class Held in Belgrade

Teresa Brostoff and Ann Sinsheimer, associate professors of legal writing at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, have taken their English for Lawyers program on the road. In May, the two visited Belgrade University, where they taught a one-week course.

Sponsored and arranged through Pitt’s Center for International Legal Education (CILE), which is directed by Pitt Professor Ronald Brand and The Center for Russian and East European Studies, the overseas model is somewhat different from Pitt’s three-week summer program. Professors Brostoff and Sinsheimer teach four hours a day, for five days, and students are given an introduction to American law.

The course also will be taught in Ukraine next summer, and has been proposed for Peru and Iceland.

—Patricia Lomando White

Some of that education includes the basics of classroom discussion.

“We also isolate different skills that they’ll have to use and practice those,” said Sinsheimer, “like how do you break into a discussion, raise your hand. We give them examples of the type of hypothetical problems they’ll be working on in their law classes so that they have a sense of the disorientation they are going to feel in this safe environment before they actually experience it in August.”

“We also give them the chance to integrate past experiences and fit them into the new material they are learning,” said Brostoff. “When we talk about a concept in American law, they can express how that concept is demonstrated in the laws of their country. This really helps with the culture shock, and it also helps, since they all have very diverse backgrounds, by getting the students to bond with each other, because they can see similarities in their past experience. So they have a support network, and they also have some practice learning to talk about themselves.”

Another advantage of the Pitt program is that Brostoff and Sinsheimer are on the faculty and available throughout the year for the students who remain at the University. They are a continuing source of support and mentoring for the students.

The English for Lawyers summer program includes a field component. In the afternoons, the professors take the students to courts, prisons, and law firms. They even have gone to trials.

“We have had the good fortune in the last few years to have some exciting trial going on,” said Brostoff. “It’s quite interesting, because the whole concept of jury as a finder of fact, and deciding who tells the truth, is difficult for them to understand. And once they sit through a trial they say, ‘Now we understand. We could tell that some of those witnesses weren’t telling the truth, and now we know what the jury does.’”

Those kinds of real experiences reinforce the abstract, theoretical things the professors teach in all their classes.

“The whole program has helped both of us in teaching the first-year law students too,” said Sinsheimer.

“Law is similar to learning a second language, even if you’re a native speaker.”

—Patricia Lomando White


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