An Interview with Professor Stephen Horowitz

Blackboard and bulletin board combination with a picture of Professor Stephen Horowitz, black and white photo of a man with glasses in a collared shirt and tie

Learning any language is hard, and English is no exception. Professor Stephen Horowitz has lived and worked abroad, and brings the lessons he learned from his time teaching in Japan to his instruction of Legal English. For him, clear communication with English as a Second Language (ESL) students is a matter of teaching what they need to know, while eliminating cultural jargon from his own speech. His nuanced view of plain language shed a light on how important it is to tailor communication for your target audience.

What is your role and how is it connected to clear communication?

I’m a Professor of Legal English at Georgetown Law School. I help international masters of laws (LLM) students improve their ability to comprehend and communicate in a US legal environment.

What is the JET program, and what made you decide to apply? Did you see it leading to a career in the legal world?

The Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program is a grassroots diplomacy program created by the Japanese government modeled partly on the Peace Corps program. Since 1987, the JET Program has brought nearly 100,000 people to Japan to help teach English in the public school system and support Japanese local governments in a variety of other ways.

I really didn’t understand any of this when I applied to the program during my senior year of college in the early 1990s. I just knew I wanted to go live and work in another country, and Japan seemed as good of an option as any other place. The JET Program assigns its participants to towns and cities all over Japan, usually to more rural areas. I was assigned to a town called Kariya which was in Aichi Prefecture, right near the big city of Nagoya, and right next to Toyota City which is the headquarters of Toyota. And spent two years working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), the most common position for JET participants, rotating on a weekly basis among the six junior high schools in Kariya.

To be honest, I had no idea where it would lead. And as I finished my time there, I still had no idea, which is why I went to law school. There were only seven years of alumni from the program, and it was pre-internet and much harder to gather information. So I had no model for what others did after JET. For that reason, I ended up getting very involved in the JET Alumni community, in part to try and figure out what people were doing after JET. Now it’s been over thirty years and there are over 70,000 alumni worldwide with about half of those in the US. So we have a much better sense of common career paths and a very supportive alumni network.

What were some of the most valuable insights about communication that you gained from your time living and working abroad?

  1. Don’t try to make too many jokes. I learned this the hard way. Japan and the US have very different senses of what’s funny and what’s appropriate to joke about.

  2. Don’t overexplain. When someone doesn’t say anything after you try to explain something in English, don’t explain more. Try to understand what they don’t understand before you give any more information. I learned this from having things overexplained to me for Japanese. I would get frustrated and it would wear me down, and then I would avoid asking that person any additional questions. So as a teacher now, I try to be as minimalist as I can in my explanations and teaching. To leave plenty of room for Student Talk Time in any situation.

  3. How to challenge many deeply held assumptions. In Japan I encountered so many situations and behaviors that felt uncomfortable and at times even irrational. I learned to stop myself and consider the possibility that it actually was rational if you’re working from a different set of assumptions. And I learned to question and evaluate my own assumptions about how things should work before I fell back on a judgmental view or comment. It’s led me to a passionate curiosity for trying to understand why people do things they do.

  4. Empathy, for any people in another country who may feel lost or out of place.

  5. Insight into the language learning process. I knew almost no Japanese when I arrived in Japan, and I quickly figured out that the typical language class was not going to be helpful for me. So I was constantly experimenting with ways to learn and improve my Japanese. And a lot of that process and what I felt and experienced and learned about learning still informs my teaching today.

What connections do you see between writing for lawyers, linguistics, English as a Second Language, and the plain language movement? How do you see these fields working together to promote clarity and equity?

This is a somewhat tricky yet extremely interesting question. I find people often equate plain English with legal English and are of the opinion that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In some ways that is true, but in other ways it can be completely misguided. And that’s because the needs of native English speaking attorneys and law students and others are often very different from the needs of their non-native English speaking counterparts.

The plain English movement is a reaction to a sense that the writing of lawyers and judges had become unnecessarily complicated and was acting as a barrier to access to justice. Although not stated explicitly, the plain English movement seems to me to assume native English speakers as its primary users and consumers. Legal English, on the other hand, is a catch-all term relating to the approach and curriculum for helping lawyers and law students from other language backgrounds study or work with US (or UK, Canadian, Australian, etc.) law or contracts in English.

The primary overlap is probably with regard to input. In the case of plain English, if you simplify language and use fewer words, then there is less information to process, both in volume and complexity. That should work to the benefit of non-native English speakers. In other words, using plain English makes a text closer to the idea of “comprehensible input.” Of course, it’s also possible that even a text that meets plain English standards could still be challenging for a non-native English speaker to understand for a variety of reasons, including vocabulary, grammar, and cultural knowledge gaps. And of course among non-native English speakers, there will also always be a wide range of facility with English.

However, it seems to me that plain English and legal English begin to diverge regarding output. This is because plain English can often be conveyed as a series of prescriptivist rules and principles for how to use and not use language. Whereas in legal English, the priority is generally learning to communicate one’s ideas accurately, with style a little lower down the priority list depending on the student. From a legal English teaching perspective, we want the students to learn to feel confident in expressing their ideas. If we focus too much on every style or language point, then they’ll get bogged down worrying too much about making nitpicky mistakes rather than getting their ideas written down.

I should note that in its ideal form, Plain English is really just English that factors in the comprehension needs of its audience and doesn’t necessarily include an inclination towards prescriptivism. But in practice and presentation, and given that most of us in law (and throughout society in general) have learned English language and grammar within a prescriptivist framework, when I see mentions of or references to Plain English in a LinkedIn post or on a listserv discussion, it always seems to have a fairly prescriptivist “do-this-don’t-do-that” flavor to it.

Another sort of blind spot in conflating Plain English and Legal English is that re-stating or simplifying language means paraphrasing or summarizing. That is, changing words without inadvertently changing the meaning. But paraphrasing and summarizing in a second language can actually be extremely challenging to do well and accurately. They require a strong control of a language and acute awareness and understanding of nuance and implications of words and phrasings. And this is exactly what non-native English speakers generally lack. The simplest definition of a native English speaker, if you think about it, is really just someone who knows what sounds right. If you lack that, then it can be very hard to paraphrase with confidence and with accuracy.

One additional divergence with legal English and Plain English is that while Plain English often seeks to get rid of overwrought legalese phrases, from a legal English teaching perspective, I actually want my students to learn those chunks of language when appropriate. They’re still part of the language and so it’s important to be able to recognize and understand them when encountered.

One potentially symbiotic benefit of Plain English is that a legal English student could take a document (e.g., a contract; a memo; etc.) that has been re-written in Plain English and then compare the original with the Plain English version. Using noticing activities, a legal English student could improve their ability to paraphrase and toggle between legalese and Plain English phrasings of a particular concept. That could be extremely beneficial for students.

What prompted you to combine Law and English as a Second Language? 

I decided to combine law and ESL when I decided to return to ESL teaching as a career. I realized the job I’d enjoyed the most in my life was teaching English and decided it would make sense to return to that. I knew it wasn’t a high paying field. But I figured if I could combine it with law, I might be able to earn enough. I had no idea if it would work. Just a hunch. But I tried talking with people in the law school world to get a sense, and I learned there was a community out there of people supporting international students who were coming to US law schools. So that gave me hope.

And the way I broke into the law school world was that I just called around to the law schools in New York City that had international student programs (i.e., LLM programs) to see if they needed any support. Some told me they didn’t. But when I called St. John’s, it turned out they had just recently started an LLM program and really needed someone like me. So it was about being at the right place at the right time and making my own opportunities.

What’s funny is that I remember going out to St. John’s to talk to the people overseeing the program, and I thought I was going for an informational interview. I joke that by the time we’d finished the discussion, they’d strapped me to the chair and told me that I would be teaching there. It was a new experience for me and a very positive one. And it confirmed that my hunch about combining law and ESL had been a good one.

How can other lawyers help clients who speak English as a second language? What should lawyers know about ESL processing that would help them better serve clients?

It’s difficult to explain this without taking a lawyer on my entire learning journey. But I guess a few tips could be:

  1. Train your brain to speak in a way that is slower but still natural sounding, i.e., uses connected speech. Better if you can avoid staccato speaking where you say each word by itself very sharply. And also avoid slipping into Tarzan-speak. Use regular language, but just slow down. This, along with the next suggestion, are known as “grading” one’s speech. It actually takes a lot of practice to get good at it. And some people are just naturally inclined to be stronger or weaker at doing it.

  2. Avoid cultural references, figures of speech, and jokes. It takes a fair amount of practice to identify potentially blocking language in one’s own communication and be able to effortlessly substitute something that works better for comprehension. It’s taken me years to develop a voice and a way of speaking that works well for non-native English speakers without seeming condescending. People who have lived in another country are often better at this than people who haven’t. So I guess going and living in another country for a while would be a helpful, albeit perhaps impractical, suggestion.

  3. Be ok with silence. Pause after you say something. Allow an extra few beats of silence after asking a question. A lot of times non-native English speakers don’t respond to a statement or question, and you’re not sure why, and you rush to fill the silence. Remember to be ok with silence because non-native speakers often just need time to process what was said and/or think through how to form the sentence they want to say.

  4. Visual aids such as PowerPoint slides are helpful. If you’re going to present information to them, a picture is of course worth a thousand words. But words are also worth a lot of words. So if there’s something they can look at in writing as you’re talking, that can help too. Letting students see the slides prior to class can also be a valuable and very helpful (if counterintuitive) strategy for helping students better follow and participate in the eventual lecture and class discussion.

How can professors help students who speak English as a second language?

I think just understand some of the points I made above. Also, in terms of written feedback, be aware that non-native English students benefit from more explicit and objective feedback. Comments with subjective generalities like, “This is confusing,” or “Fix grammar” can leave non-native English students feeling stuck and stressed. They know they’re doing something wrong but it’s not clear to them how to fix it, and they feel like they’re deficient. But the reality is that they’re being asked to do something that no one has ever taught them or showed them how to do.

Does your writing advice or teaching emphasis change when working with ESL students? If it does, how does it change and why?

Yes. I always try to figure out writing advice and comments that will be explicit and objective. For example, in teaching students to write IRAC-style essays for law school exams or the bar exam (i.e., Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion), I show students that there are specific language features for the writing moves often used. For example, students often struggle the most with the Application section. I show them that most of their sentences need to have key rule words and key fact words in the same sentence. The way writers frequently accomplish this is with dependent clauses. (e.g., “Since the defendant was the owner of the company, he had a duty to provide a safe work environment for his employees.”)

In other words, I give them concrete things they can hang a hat on to self-assess whether they wrote a good sentence or not: rule words, fact words, and subordinating conjunctions (e.g., “since,” “when,” “even though,” etc.)

With native English speakers, I don’t often need to be this explicit because they already have significant background and cultural knowledge. They’re familiar with the discourse style and can pick it up from reading a few sample answers. Though I’ve actually had a number of professors who work with native English speaking JD students tell me that they think my approach would be helpful for a lot of native English speakers as well.

What’s one piece of advice that you would offer to help a professional starting to serve the ESL community?

Listen well and try to learn as much as you can from your students. They will teach you amazing things if you let them. Also, the ESL community of teachers and other professionals is one of the most helpful and supportive communities out there. So find an appropriate listserv or other group and share your questions and challenges with them. You’ll find them to be a terrific resource.

What kinds of projects are you involved in currently?

Over the past year, I’ve become very involved with a collaborative initiative among law professors from the US and other countries to teach online law and legal English courses for law students in Ukraine. More recently I’ve been helping to set up a framework for providing legal English training for Ukrainian law and legal English faculty. Working with Daniel Edelson of USLawEssentials, we also received a teaching grant from the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) for our proposal to create an accessible online legal English writing course intended for law students from politically disrupted countries.

Additionally, since August 2023, Daniel Edelson, Prof. Lindsey Kurtz of Penn State Law School, and I have been providing legal English assessments and study support on a pro bono basis for an ABA pilot program that has been helping female judges from Afghanistan to relocate to the US and enter LLM programs at US law schools to help the judges start legal careers in the US.

I've also been involved with Daniel Edelson as well as Prof. Brian Sites of the University of Miami Law School in offering online four-week MBE and Bar Exam Writing for LLM Students course that allows students to pay whatever they wanted, even $0, in an effort to make high-quality bar support for non-native English speakers more accessible.

About Stephen Horowitz

Stephen Horowitz is a Professor of Legal English at Georgetown Law and has also developed online legal English courses for Georgetown Law, St. John’s Law and USLawEssentials. His courses for USLawEssentials have included legal English for two law schools in Ukraine and a cohort of female judges from Afghanistan. In addition to serving as editor for the Georgetown Legal English Blog (which includes the Legal English Resources page), Stephen is the administrator for the ETLEP Google Group (listserv for the global legal English community), and co-host of the USLawEssentials Law & Language podcast. He previously served as Director of Legal English Programs at St. John’s Law School and prior to that worked as a corporate bankruptcy lawyer in New York. He is a graduate of Duke Law and also taught English in Japan in the mid-1990s on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program. Stephen currently serves on the Board of Advisors for the JET Alumni Association USA and is an avid ultimate frisbee player, having played in tournaments all across the U.S. and around the world. You can find him on LinkedIn, Twitter(X), and BlueSky.

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