Speaking your language

The SRA’s Liz McNaulty is right when she says that many straight-A students can’t write properly these days, says BPP Law School chief Peter Crisp – and it matters.

Speaking your languageWords are the dominant and most powerful tool of the trade for a lawyer. The ability to articulate an argument, draft a pleading or write an advice with precision and clarity are the assay marks of a lawyer.

Virtually everything lawyers do involves the use of language, written and spoken, and we are rightly judged on how well we write and speak. Lawyers should be experts not just in the law but in the use of words and the use of language. (The Scottish term for a solicitor or attorney used to be a ‘Writer’ (in full, a ‘Writer to Her Majesty’s Signet’). Lawyers are, or should be, the wordsmiths of the professions.

This week Liz McAnulty, the SRA’s director of regulation standards, said that she believed a foundation course in English Language should be introduced for all Legal Practice Course students to improve their levels of grammar and general written English (The Lawyer, 29 September).

Worried that even students with straight ‘A’ grades at A-Level and with a good degree struggle with grammar and spelling in their written work, McAnulty proposes a compulsory module in the English language for all LPC students. And she is correct in her diagnosis of the problem, if not necessarily in her proposed solution.

It might be hoped that graduates embarking on the LPC would already have considerable skill in the use of the written word, that they understand that a lawyer must write exceptionally well and with the utmost precision and clarity – and that if this is not the case, they have chosen the wrong profession – and that their challenge is to make the transition from an academic style and approach to being able to use words without pretension or embellishment to communicate effectively with a client or the court. However, for a surprising number of students, the challenge is not just this transition but a failure to grasp essential rules of grammar, often combined with poor spelling and syntax.

And this is not just a problem with students. A partner at a major City firm confided to me this week that the ability to write English properly is a real concern and that his firm has an increasing number of very well qualified junior lawyers who require remedial English lessons.

Style or fashion

It is fashionable to regard accurate spelling and grammar as inessentials. John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London, recently called for a “freeing up” of English spelling and grammar: “text messaging, e-mail and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward in English”, he suggests.

I am happy to be unfashionable: as Suetonius tells us, even Caesar is not above the grammarians (the Emperor Tiberius was famously rebuked for some verbal slip). Generation Y may be children of an information age of on-line networking, mobile technology and digital communication, but the ability to write is as essential today for a lawyer as it has always been.

At BPP, our LPC students study a legal writing module which begins by reaffirming the principles of spelling, grammar, punctuation, precision, conciseness and even style. We emphasise the importance of understanding your reader and the use of plain English. A surprising number of students however clearly need remedial support; others need to be informed that there is no place for ‘text speak’ in an email to a client.

But is a compulsory foundation course or remedial lessons at Law School the answer? In the long term, written skills need to be addressed at school and, if necessary, at university. I would re-introduce the formal teaching of grammar (all students should be able to parse a sentence). In all written assessments -in whatever subject – at both school and university students should be marked and penalised on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In the shorter term, LPC students who feel that their English Language skills need improving should seek advice and support from their law school and continue to hone those skills as a trainee and junior lawyer. But what an indictment of our education system that law schools should have to consider the introduction of remedial lessons in the country’s own language.

Peter Crisp is dean of BPP law school.