Over the years I have taught a number of students whose primary language was not English, let alone American English. I have a deep respect for these students who want to enter into a profession that relies so heavily on the written word. During the course of their legal educations in the United States, they have the opportunity to make adjustments, practice writing in English, and start thinking like an American attorney. But what if you are an attorney who has trained outside the United States? How do you prepare to take a bar examination that is the culmination of law school studies when you do not have that foundation of a legal education provided here in the United States?
When I think about this topic, I always remember a student who did not have an education immersed in the English language until he was in his first year of high school. I recall going over an essay exam with him when he asked me about a phrase that was used in the question. This was a common phrase anyone who had grown up in this country or had read American literature would have understood. Yet it confused him. It was not a phrase he was familiar with, and he did not grasp the full meaning – by the way, it was not important to the fact pattern. But for him, it ate up valuable time in the planning process because he kept trying to figure out what it meant and caused him to approach the essay lacking confidence.
The bar examination consists of a series of questions that must be answered in a set amount of time. Typical questions are designed to be dealt with in a one-hour period. Students are taught to read the question and plan an outline for their essay in about 15 minutes, leaving 45 minutes to write. Any person who has taken the bar exam will tell you that time frame is challenging even under the best of circumstances. Now imagine using part of that 15 minute time period to translate the meaning of the language used. Will this take you an additional 5 to 10 minutes, cutting into valuable writing time?
For this reason, if you are planning to take the bar examination as a foreign trained attorney, you might consider factoring in a couple of additional steps when studying that might enhance your ability to pass:
1. Consider Enrolling in an English Writing Class
Spend a semester writing in English. It should not be a basic grammar class. Many foreign educated lawyers who have studied English while in college or university, often understand grammar rules better than most American students. The goal, instead, is to write as much as possible using an American style of English. If the class teaches rhetoric, that would be a bonus. These classes might be available online but consider going into a classroom. Many Community Colleges offer these types of classes. Hire a tutor if that is a financially available option. The repeated practice and criticism of your writing is what will help you prepare for the pressure situation of a typical bar examination.
2. Pick up a Good Book – Something Fun to Read
I am not suggesting anything heavy. Pick a book that is meant to help you escape. Typical genres would include murder mysteries, historical fiction, romance, science fiction – whatever type of writing you might pick up in your own native language for fun. Just make sure it is written by an American author. Get used to the phrasing and colloquialisms. It might be a cliche, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be a good option to start with, followed by a Raymond Chandler, a Sue Grafton, or a John Grisham.
3. And by All Means, Sign Up for Some Good Tutoring
Of course, the most important step to take is to sign up for a good bar review program that incorporates a lot of one-on-one tutoring. You need to prepare for the bar exam by not only reviewing substantive areas of law, but you also need to complete a series of practice exams. The ideal program will pair you with a tutor who will review your practice exams and highlight where you can make improvements. The first two suggestions will help enhance your performance and success during bar review, by getting you more comfortable with the language. Participation in a bar review course that utilizes a tutor will then take you to the finish line.
Attorneys all over the world understand good preparation is necessary for success in the profession. If you are a foreign attorney, apply that same principle when preparing to take a bar examination in the United States.