The Ultimate Guide

LEGAL ENGLISH FOR INTERNATIONAL LAWYERS

If you are a lawyer from a non-English speaking country, Legal English is your ticket to the elite world of international law.
Most leading companies and law firms want their lawyers to be able to communicate on legal matters in fluent English. As a result, mastering Legal English is one of the best investments that a lawyer can make.
1

What is Legal English?

legal english and general english. Influences of Anglo-Norman, French and Latin on Legal English
Legal English is a sublanguage of English used to communicate on legal matters, or, as Wikipedia puts it, 'the type of English as used in legal writing'.

Being a sublanguage, Legal English is similar to and yet different from ordinary English. Throughout its long history, Legal English has been influenced by Anglo-Norman, French and Latin, resulting in its peculiar vocabulary and grammar.
Legal English aims to be more precise and consistent than ordinary language. For example, the ordinary English sentence
Under the law, you must insure your car.
may be translated into Legal English as
Pursuant to the statute, you must purchase and maintain insurance for the vehicles you own or operate.
Sometimes, however, lawyers take things too far, and Legal English becomes 'legalese'. Legalese is an unnecessarily complicated version of Legal English which is hard for non-lawyers (and even lawyers!) to understand.

Dialects of Legal English

Like almost any other (sub)language, Legal English has its own dialects. For example, a US 'attorney' may specialize in 'corporate law', while her British colleague, a 'solicitor', specializes in 'company law'.

Here is, for example, how the popularity of the search term 'attorney' compares against 'solicitor' on Google:
attorney solicitor search term popularity map
list of countires where the search term solicitor is more popular than the search term attorney
As you can see, 'solicitor' is almost exclusively used in Ireland and is roughly as popular as 'attorney' in the UK and Australia. All other countries strongly prefer 'attorney'.
2

Examples of Legal Language

Legal English may take a variety of forms. For example, an English bill of sale often contains Victorian-era language:
This Indenture made the 5th day of March 2018, between MR JAMES BOND of 1 Trafalgar Square, London, of the one part, and THOSE PERSONS whose names and addresses appear in Schedule 1 to this Bill of Sale (together the Creditors) of the other part, witnesseth that in consideration of the sum of £1 now paid to Mr James Bond by the Creditors, the receipt of which the said Mr James Bond hereby acknowledges, he the said Mr James Bond doth hereby assign unto the Creditors, their respective executors, administrators, and assigns, all and singular the several chattels and things specifically described in…
Not all Legal English is archaic, though. Here is how Lord Denning, one of the most famous UK judges, opens his last published judgement:
Many of you know Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass". In it there are these words:

"'The time has come', the Walrus said, 'to talk of many things - of ships and shoes and sealing wax - of cabbages and kings'".

Today it is not "of cabbages and kings" - but of cabbages and what-nots. Some farmers (called George Mitchell Ltd.) ordered 30 lbs. of cabbage seed. It was supplied. It looked just like cabbage seed. No one could say it was not. The farmers planted it over 63 acres. Six months later there appeared out of the ground a lot of loose green leaves. They looked like cabbage leaves but they never turned in.

They had no hearts. They were not "cabbages" in our common parlance because they had no hearts. The crop was useless for human consumption. Sheep or cattle might eat it if hungry enough. It was commercially useless. The price of the seed was £192. The loss to the farmers was over £61,000. They claimed damages from the seed merchants. The judge awarded them that sum with interest. The total comes to nearly £100,000.
Lord Denning, a famous UK judge
And here is yet another example, a definition from the US JOBS Act of 2012:
The term "emerging growth company" means an issuer that had total annual gross revenues of less than $1,000,000,000 (as such amount is indexed for inflation every 5 years by the Commission to reflect the change in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, setting the threshold to the nearest 1,000,000) during its most recently completed fiscal year.
US JOBS Act of 2012
And a dispute resolution clause from an international contract:
The courts of England have exclusive jurisdiction to settle any dispute arising out of or in connection with this Agreement (including a dispute relating to the existence, validity or termination of this Agreement or any non-contractual obligation arising out of or in connection with this Agreement.
3

The Vocabulary of Legal English

As you can see from the examples above, Legal English uses words and expressions that are rarely used outside of the legal domain. Such specialized words constitute the vocabulary of Legal English.

Just as the law itself is often divided into criminal law, corporate law, labour law and other branches of law, so is the vocabulary of Legal English divided into the vocabulary used in each respective area of law. Such division helps learners to familiarize themselves with the words and expressions used in their area of practice.

Of course, some words and expressions, such as 'lawyer', 'judge' or, well, 'law', are used in every branch of law. Such words and expressions constitute the foundation of legal vocabulary.

4

The Grammar of Legal English

The grammar of Legal English differs from the grammar of general English, too. Lawyers express their ideas using obscure or even archaic ways, as well as use well-known grammatical structures in unusual contexts. For example, unlike in general English, the verb 'shall' in contracts is used to express the obligations of the parties and not the future simple tense:
example of the use of the verb shall in an authentic contract
5

Legal English: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening

Unlike everyday and even business English, Legal English is mostly used in written form. While lawyers do use specialized legal vocabulary when negotiating contracts or presenting in court, English spoken by lawyers is very similar to general English. As a result, most Legal English courses and exams are focused on reading and writing skills, and rightfully so.

As an international lawyer, you are expected to be able to read and write documents in English. If you work on M&A transactions or international supply of goods or services, you are expected to read and write contracts. If you practice international dispute resolution, you are expected to read and write court documents, research evidence and prepare opinions in English.

However, although the majority of your work will involve reading and writing, you may need to participate in calls or meetings in English. It means that you should be able to understand spoken English and to speak English, too. To achieve mastery with spoken language, you should work on your listening and speaking skills, including your English pronunciation.

Test your Legal English now!

Take our 5-minute test to estimate your level. Use your score to develop a personal roadmap to the mastery of Legal English.
6

Legal English Exams: TOLES and ILEC

As of 2020, the leading Legal English exam is TOLES. TOLES is generally held 4 times a year through a network of authorized exam centres throughout the world. We operate one such authorized centre in Russia.

There are 3 levels of TOLES: Foundation, Higher and Advanced. The exams are mostly focused on reading and writing. TOLES Higher has a listening section, but there are plans to discontinue it in the future.

Before 2017, there was another English exam for lawyers called ILEC. However, it was discontinued in December 2016.
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How to Learn or Improve Legal English

The best way to master Legal English is to use it at your job, ideally under the supervision of a native speaker or a very advanced lawyer from your own country. This way, you will be working on real legal tasks while getting your mistakes corrected by a competent supervisor.

However, to land such a job, you need a good starting level of Legal English. Assuming that your general English is at an intermediate level or higher, you should focus on expanding your legal vocabulary and on writing legal documents in English.

Here are some strategies that we find the most useful:

  • Use the spaced-repetition technique to learn new words. Use a free, open-source app like Anki, and you will easily be learning 5–10 new words per day, every day.


  • Practice writing on legal topics. Writing is much harder to master on your own than reading, and you will see the most progress after completing a supervised course. For example, we offer a four-week online contract-drafting course.

Use these strategies, along with other ways to learn Legal English, and you will soon land that dream international legal job.
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Online Legal English Courses

Here at english.legal, we offer online courses in Legal English.

Our courses are:

  • completely online, and most are available 24/7. You can learn on your own schedule and combine learning with working or studying at a law school;

  • designed by a multinational team of lawyers and educators. We bring together the best of both worlds: the expertise of top lawyers from English-speaking countries and the educational know-how of non-native teachers of English; and

  • very practice-oriented. As lawyers ourselves, we understand the skills and requirements of modern international legal practice.

Click here to learn more about how our courses work.

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About the author
Sergey Snigirev
Sergey is the founder of english.legal and a co-author of our English Contract Drafting course. As a Russian lawyer regularly working on English-language transactions, Sergey understands the needs and challenges facing international lawyers whose first language is not English.