Natalia M. Urrea

Natalia M. Urrea, BARBRI Director,
International Business Development


I find long-haul flights to be some of the best places to focus and be most productive. On my most recent flight to Doha, I was reviewing a proposed licensing agreement from a potential Chinese business partner; I had been corresponding with their legal and management team for weeks and we were negotiating some of the final details. As I wrote bullet points summarizing the relevant legal implications, considering potential trade-off concessions, and suggesting next steps to my management team, I felt fortunate to be able to have this exchange with our potential Chinese partners in English. I do not speak Chinese, and English is not even my native language (Spanish is), yet our English and legal English language abilities allowed us to clearly communicate across borders, cultures, and legal systems.

It is widely acknowledged that English is the lingua franca of international business and transactions, cross border litigations, negotiations, and even academia. English also continues to reign as the dominant language at multinational companies. Nowadays, many significant legal transactions have an international dimension where it is commonplace to have colleagues, clients, products or services in different parts of the world. English is by default the language used in all of these exchanges and the lawyer must be able to not only communicate in English at a high level, but also master legal English in order to convey legal principles, concepts and terminology in the English language.

Additionally, legal language is inseparable from the law and the legal system in which it is used.

Legal English proficiency therefore requires an understanding of the exact meanings of legal terms as well as an understanding of how the legal concepts developed and are used in common law legal systems. In spite of its technical complexity, legal writing should also be clear, simple and direct, and legal professionals today are encouraged and advised to shorten and simplify their sentences. Thus, in addition to satisfying linguistic requirements, a qualified legal professional is expected to understand both the content and context of the information that she or he is presented with as well as translate legalese and legalspeak into plain English for clients, colleagues, and business partners.

The influence and dominance of the English language and the U.S. and U.K. legal systems and culture in legal transactions is certainly not a new phenomenon. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Versailles Treaty was drafted in both French and English. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, English became the main language of communication in international organizations as The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Common law is also the most widespread legal system in the world as well as the preferred choice of law in cross-border transactions. In 2016, the Singapore Academy of Law surveyed 500 legal practitioners and in-house counsel who deal with cross-border transactions in Asia on their preferences for the choice of governing law and jurisdiction. The study revealed that 48% of lawyers select English law as their preferred choice of law in cross-border transactions. Singapore law was second at 25%, with New York at 7% and Hong Kong at 3%. Furthermore, according to the Law Society of England and Wales, 80% of cases before the Commercial Court in London involve at least one foreign party and around 50% of the cases have no connection to England and Wales except that the parties have chosen to resolve their disputes in England and Wales.

Perhaps even more telling is a finding by Philip Wood, Allen & Overy’s Special Global Counsel, and one of the world’s leading experts in comparative and cross-border financial law. In his book, “Maps of World Financial Law,” Wood writes that American and English Common Law jurisdictions combined generate 40% of the world GDP. With such a significant portion of the world GDP coming from common law jurisdictions, it is impossible not to consider the level of influence that common law legal systems can have over the operation of global markets.

Thus, in today’s global legal services economy, legal professionals should expect English and legal English mastery to be not just a helpful skill but rather a required competency to perform day-to-day work.

Whether it is negotiating deals around the world; drafting and amending contracts; writing opinions, formal letters or emails to business partners and clients; presenting on legal issues at international conferences or client meetings; or simply distilling the important bullet points from a complex legal document on a long-haul flight, legal English mastery should be a top priority for all legal professionals in 2017 and beyond.

I am an international business development director and curriculum architect at BARBRI, the largest legal education and bar exam preparation company, and these are just a few of the insights that went into the development of the BARBRI Professional Development courses that I helped design from the ground up specifically for Non-U.S. Lawyers.

On the year of the rooster, commit to mastering your legal English skills.