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Good people speaking well: legal education through modern languages

In her paper Chloë Wallace (University of Leeds) explored the added value offered to a law student by the study of modern languages, comparing French and law as academic subjects.

Chloë‘s slides are embedded below, and her full paper is available to downlaod at the bottom of the page.

Coincidentally, a total of four papers at Learning in Law Annual Conference 2009 explored the implications of the differences between the French and UK/Irish legal education systems – see the other papers by Audrey Guinchard, Marie-Luce Paris and Ruth Sefton-Green. In her report on Ruth and Audrey’s papers Chloë noted that “the cultural leap is significant and possibly not as well understood as it could be, with an important impact on mobility and on quality assurance”.

Most law schools offer degree programmes combining the study of law with that of modern languages, usually incorporating a year spent in the appropriate country. The language concerned is overwhelmingly French.

The perception of these degrees, among students and staff, is often that the study of French is of value in instrumental terms, both as a ‘skill’ in its own right and in that it permits the student to study law in France. The value of studying a foreign legal system is unquestionable and well documented, as is the benefit of fluency in a foreign language, however many (although not all) such degree programmes in fact involve students in the study not only of the French language but in a wider range of options covering aspects of French culture and society, with intellectual and educational functions far beyond the support of language learning.

Starting with the premise (certainly evident within the presenter’s own institution) that these programmes are particularly successful at producing graduates who are not only generally well educated, but specifically highly capable in their legal studies, this paper will explore the added value which the study of French language and culture brings to a qualifying law degree, through a comparison of French and law as subjects of academic study.

Studies carried out of both academics and students within law and modern languages indicate striking similarities between the subjects, suggesting that they complement each other within a programme. Both offer intellectual breadth, to the point of being arguably multi-disciplinary subjects in their own right, and both have claims that it is this breadth which provides a major benefit to students of the subject, in terms of ‘pure’ intellectual development and in terms of producing graduates with the qualities needed to contribute effectively within society (whether within the professions or beyond).

Both, however, experience pedagogic challenges borne of this breadth and consequent apparent lack of clarity and unity. Both tend to recruit students who have instrumental or vocational reasons for their choice of degree subject, rather than pure academic interest, and both experience the consequent challenge of students whose expectations of their studies are not in line with the expectations and aspirations of those who teach them.

There are, however, striking differences – notably, the fact that law’s ‘vocational’ nature is emphasised by its connection with a particular profession, and the consequent influence of professional bodies, as well as the inherent differences between student experience of French as a ‘school’ subject and law as a ‘new’ subject.

Though this comparison, a novel revisitation of the well worn debate about the (false) dichotomy between academic and vocational education becomes possible. The specific context of a combination of law and a subject with many intellectual similarities to law allows for a consideration of what it is within a law degree which makes students potentially capable lawyers and why the law is a good vehicle for a liberal education. Such a consideration should lead us to reflect further on how we can ensure that our law programmes continue to produce capable lawyers and well formed human beings, and what lessons we can learn from programmes in modern languages in this regard.

Sara Chandler (College of Law) reports:

Chloë looked at the benefits of comparative law, adding language and cultural studies to the study of law, with a year in France as part of a joint degree. Evidence shows that this cohort of students get higher results when examined in law.
Issues arising:

  • students arrive with French A level and have a familiarity with texts, film, books etc, but do not have a familiarity with law, which they find more difficult
  • the added value in terms of skills (engagement in analytical and evaluative thinking, developing problem solving) ensures that the students do enough law and it is a valid qualifying law degree
  • the explicit connection of law in its cultural context enables students to develop a greater understanding
  • combined degrees are put together by marketing people – is law different?
  • what are the organisational needs of a combined course?
    The culture of focusing on detail in the law degree contrasts with the creativity in the French degree, yet having to work with a text in a foreign language means that the students do have to work in detail. The year abroad is really good for the comparative aspect, as law is taught by rote learning in France.
    A lower percentage of graduates from the joint degree go on to do vocational courses in law, with many going off to a career outside the law.

About Chloë

Chloë Wallace is is a lecturer in law at Leeds, where she directs the LLB Law and French. She has taught at various universities in France, and her interests lie in comparative law, legal culture and legal education.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010