Mind the gap in legal language

English is the official tongue of many African countries, yet students’ written skills are often below par

Jeffrey Heasman

According to the African Development Bank the average African economy is expected to grow by around 4.5 per cent in 2012 and 4.8 per cent in 2013. With such impressive growth there has been an increased focus on Africa as a potential place to do business, and leading international law firms are no exception to this.

What may be equally attractive for firms is the fact that many countries on the continent have English as their official language – after all, is not a lawyer’s greatest asset their skill with language, whether written or spoken?

You may think, therefore, that in terms of recruiting high-calibre lawyers here is match made in heaven. Alas, this is just not the case.

There seems to be a misconception, not just in Africa but also in other countries where English is the mother tongue, that lawyers are born with a natural ability to write well and use accurate legal English. This assumption is completely wrong and international law firms are going to be pretty surprised when they venture in to the African market and discover such low levels of English, particularly in its written form.

But why is this? First, universities have assumed that by the time students get on to their degree courses they can write accurately. They ignore the fact that legal English is almost a separate language, with all its technical terms, nuances, and jargon. Universities have a duty to treat first-year students of law as if they are learning a new language and devote much more time to the teaching of legal English vocabulary, grammar and writing styles.

The professional stage of qualification needs to build on this and ensure that lawyers are good communicators. Yes, students are taught letter-writing skills in terms of layout at law school, but what about vocabulary and grammar? How many institutions treat this as a priority? Very few, I suspect – and if they have been teaching it, one has to query the quality of that teaching.

There are professional legal English exams that provide firms with the assurance that the holder of a certificate is competent in the use of accurate legal English. Take Toles (Test of Legal English Skills), for example. With a focus on accuracy, vocabulary acquisition, grammar and drafting skills a firm recruiting a lawyer in possession of such a certificate can have peace of mind. But only recently has such an exam been made widely available to the region, with Cavendish University Zambia having introduced the exam to Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda, with plans to expand.

So, the message is – venture into the buoyant markets of Africa but do not think that just because a country has English as an official language the local lawyers you recruit will have the level of English your international clients expect and demand.

Instead, beware and look for some form of official certificate, such as Toles, for evidence of accuracy when it comes to the use of legal English.