Leah Hill is an Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, and was in Barbados as a Fulbright Scholar teaching law at the University of the West Indies earlier this year.
One of the most effective ways to deepen your understanding of issues and ideas you've worked to develop in your career is to step away from them--literally. This is precisely what I was able to do via a Fulbright Scholarship to teach at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados.
While at UWI, I co-taught a course, entitled Legal Methods, to undergraduate law students. I have developed my teaching approach over many years at Fordham University School of Law so I felt well positioned to showcase my pedagogy to the students at UWI. I was aware of the many differences between UWI's law program and Fordham's. Most importantly these students were learning about a legal system that was very different from the U.S. system.
With my local co-teacher I selected those class sessions that reflected universal themes in law, like legal writing, critical analysis and problem solving. In my very first class session--Legal Writing in Plain English--I was disabused of my assumptions about these universal themes. Further, I learned quickly that my so called expertise was relative. I began my lecture with a lighthearted critique of lawyers as writers, citing their verbosity and obscure use of arcane legal language. I argued that the best writers communicate with precision, using simple direct language.
This push for the use of plain language in legal writing is pervasive in the U.S., filling legal writing manuals, textbooks and journal articles. However, the students at UWI did not buy it. I had encouraged them to participate actively in class discussions and active participation was what I got that morning. Student after student argued that the use of plain English would not be well received in the Caribbean. They explained that their legal system was steeped in tradition and formality; practitioners were expected to be verbose, formal and use ancient Latin legal terms. They argued that straight forward and direct language would be viewed as disrespectful, possibly even dumbing down. By the end of the class, I had learned a valuable lesson about the contextual limits of ideas and about the virtue of cultural exchange. It was a lesson in humility to be sure!