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Making the Leap From General to Legal English

Posted June 2004: Debra Lee helps students enter the world of authentic legal documents written in English. See Essential Teacher, Summer 2004 (p. 58), for Lynore M. Carnuccio's review of Fight Hate and Promote Tolerance: (

Only 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which led to the eventual desegregation of public schools in the United States. Civil rights attorneys, through a lengthy series of precedent-setting cases, convinced the Court that the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) led to inequality, not equality.

Teachers of legal English do not face the daunting tasks the Brown attorneys had to deal with, but they do need to decide how to present legal documents to students. Working with lay writing about law is not enough. First-year law students of all nationalities, are cast in the role of legal experts, reading and deciphering statutes, decisions, and constitutional provisions, not newspaper articles about law. By carrying students into the world of authentic legal documents, you help them succeed.

To find authentic legal documents, you need to leap one of two hurdles. The first, getting a law office to part with client materials, is perhaps insurmountable. The second hurdle, finding authentic legal documents that are challenging, but not linguistically and conceptually overwhelming, is more manageable. Although law-related articles in newspapers, in magazines, and on the Web are often not challenging enough to prepare students for complex legal reading tasks, they are a good starting point. Below I explain a three-step process for moving students into the more complex task of reading cases, statutes, and constitutional provisions, using Brown v. Board of Education as an example.

Find Nonexpert Writing on a Case

I often begin my search for good nonexpert material to use in class by looking in CNN's Law Center ( or BBCi's Crime section ( for articles on legal controversies that have already been decided. Using decided cases ensures that I have easy access to legal opinions and therefore to readily available sources of complex reading material. This year, however, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, I selected the court opinion first and then looked for Web, newspaper, and magazine articles that included a summary of the decision. I found an article that included this excerpt:

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separating black and white children in public schools was unconstitutional. Segregating students solely on the basis of their race denied black children the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, it said.

"In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate, but equal' has no place," the court ruled [italics added]. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." (Associated Press, 2004;

Before giving students the article, I give a brief historical summary or have the students research the case. This helps students easily understand the article while providing advanced vocabulary (e.g., inherently) and legal terminology (e.g., ruled).

Work With an Excerpt From the Case

Next, I find the case itself. Try searching the U.S. Supreme Court Collection ( under Archive of decisions by party, specifying historic only. You can also search by topic or author (i.e., justice).

After finding the decision, I read the syllabus, which gives the page number and hyperlink references to various parts of the opinion. Then I read the full decision, choosing a portion of it to present to the students. Having students read from the actual decision underscores some of the differences in legal terminology (e.g., rule vs. hold) and in a word's general and legal usage (e.g., rule vs. hold) while providing more authentic legal language, including complex sentence structure, than does a newspaper summary.

I chose this excerpt from Brown v. Board of Education (1954) for the students:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate, but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, wehold [italics added] that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Move on to Authentic Documents

Next, I either have the students read the entire decision or introduce them to statutes or constitutional amendments from the decision. For Brown, I used Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (see Legal Information Institute, 1993;, again focusing on complex sentence structure as well as meaning.

Web Resources for Legal Material

The three-step process, moving from general English articles on legal subjects, to case excerpts, to statutes and constitutional provisions, helps students enter the expert legal world that they must master. Here are some Web resources for nonexpert and expert legal material.

General English Material on Legal Topics

BBCi: Crime. Law Center.

Time Online Edition.

Legal English Material


Landmark Supreme Court cases.

Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School.

Legal Writing Institute.

Street Law online.


Associated Press. (2004, January 31). Black history month celebrates Supreme Court decision. Retrieved March 12, 2004, from

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 482 (1954). Retrieved April 20, 2004, from[group+f_civil+rights!3A]/doc/{@26282}/hit_headings/words=4?

Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Amendment XIV. In U.S. Constitution. Retrieved April 20, 2004, from

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

Debra Lee ( is ESL coordinator at Nashville State Community College and regularly consults on legal English programs.