In an earlier post, I wrote about the necessity and importance of making mistakes as an essential part of the process of improving your ability to practise law in English. I pointed out how ironic it was that making mistakes was the way to stop making mistakes, but how this puts Dutch lawyers in a difficult position because lawyers are “not allowed” to make mistakes. The way out of this conundrum is to reach out for help.
In this post, I’d like to follow up on that by looking at the logical conclusion: Dutch legal professionals should have access to reliable and affordable editing services and use those services regularly. (In dealing with this subject, I could be accused of self-promotion, something you’re not supposed to in a blog. However, if you stick with me, I’ll look at this subject objectively.)
“Should I get every single English e-mail checked?”
I’m afraid the answer to that is “yes”, although you could qualify it by adding:
- “at least at the start”;
- “at least until you’re sure you’ve figured most of it out”;
- “especially in important situations”;
- “unless you’re absolutely sure there are no problems with it”; or
- “unless you’re sure the model you used was already in perfect English”.
Even those who get it right most of the time should still have their English legal work checked regularly to make sure mistakes are not creeping back in. I’m afraid that practising law in a second language (like all admirable and difficult endeavours) requires a constant, lifelong maintenance and improvement programme. This is true even for English-speaking lawyers working in their first language, as indicated by all the books and courses available on legal English in the English-speaking world. If English-speaking lawyers are attending legal English courses and taking other measures to improve their legal writing, Dutch lawyers should too.
Additional training benefit
Relying on editing services should be seen as part of a continuing legal education (CLE) programme. Not only does editing result in better services to the client, but for those lawyers who are able to find the time to review the corrections carefully and to actually learn from them, this direct feedback can be an invaluable learning experience. This takes extra time, which I feel should be seen as CLE time and built into the system as such.
“Isn’t it impractical?”
I know this process can seem daunting (ontmoedigend). It seems expensive and time-consuming. I know it also seems unusual and not something that every Dutch lawyer is doing. This is all true. But it is still necessary. It falls into the category of “best practice”.
The failure to have their work checked explains why most English legal work prepared by Dutch lawyers — as good as it is — still has errors in it. The reason for the mistake-ridden and unstylish English produced by most in the Dutch legal community is as simple as that: the work is not getting checked because the process is expensive and time-consuming. (This is not just a Dutch issue per se. It’s a systemic problem faced by any legal community compelled to work in a second language.)
The use of English has increased enormously over the last two decades. Now is the time for the Dutch legal community to face this challenge head on. The Dutch are good at creating efficient systems that achieve results. What is required exactly for a non-English-speaking legal community to practise law properly in English? If any jurisdiction is in a position to do this properly, it is the Netherlands.
Setting the standard
Some Dutch lawyers would respond by pointing out that Dutch speakers in general speak better English than most people in the world, and the Dutch lawyers seem to be doing fine as it is. This is an interesting perspective that raises a number of issues. How should one assess the quality of Dutch legal work produced in English? What are the standards? There is no easy answer to this, but it is something I will try to address in future posts. Others would instinctively respond by thinking, “I don’t think I need help from anyone”. This is a different, more difficult issue. Fortunately, most Dutch lawyers do realise that they are swimming in linguistically muddied waters — with sharks circling. They know the professional and prudent approach is to integrate professional language assistance into their everyday practices.
Every single Dutch legal professional practising in English should have access to editing services and should have all (or most) English work checked. This quality-control and training process is how we can clear the muddied waters. In a later post, I’ll focus on the details.
Greg Korbee (Originally published April 2014. Republished March 2019.)
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