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St. John’s LL.M. Programs Stand Out With Language Support From Day One

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rui “Barry” Zhang smiles broadly as he explains one of the big differences between his legal education at China Youth University of Political Studies (CYU) in his native Beijing and the education he’s receiving as a graduate student in St. John’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. “In China, it’s like they give you a map and tell you to go find the treasure,” he says. “Here, they give you the treasure and you draw the map.”

It’s a treasure hunt that couldn’t be undertaken, Zhang adds, without the practical skills that he and his LL.M. classmates gain through the Law School’s exceptional language support—or Legal English—programs.

These offerings are specially designed to meet the needs of students in St. John’s Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) and U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) LL.M. programs, who earned (or are earning) their first law degree outside the United States. TLP students typically plan to practice transnational, cross-border, or international law in their home countries, and want to bring a strong knowledge of U.S. law to that practice. Students in the USLS program usually intend to take the New York State Bar Exam, and to spend most of their careers practicing U.S. law in the United States, often in New York.  

“St. John’s Law provides unrivaled language support for our international LL.M. students,” says Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies Sarah Jean Kelly, who directs the LL.M. programs. “The one- or two-semester American Law: Discourse and Analysis (ALDA) program provides a pathway for our LL.M. students who require extra English language development before starting their formal LL.M. studies. Our spring and summer language support program, English for American Law School (EALS), and our Bar Exam Language and Strategy (BELS) program are designed and taught by law professors with specific experience teaching English to non-native speakers.”

Having a faculty composed of attorneys with extensive training and experience teaching English as a Second Language is “a key differentiator in our field,” says Director of Legal English Programs and Adjunct Professor of Law Stephen Horowitz. He designed the ALDA curriculum in 2014 and then worked with Director of Academic Advising and Adjunct Professor of Law Kathryn Piper to create the EALS and BELS curriculums.

“Our approach to Legal English isn’t just about teaching and learning words in isolation,” Professor Piper emphasizes. “It’s vital that our LL.M. students learn to order their thoughts and to present information cogently for American courts and for U.S. transactional work. We teach them how to do that by assimilation and practice.” 

That practice begins well before the LL.M. students arrive at St. John’s Law, under the guidance of Director of Graduate Global Engagement and Adjunct Professor of Law Joshua M. Alter '13. “Studying law in the United States is difficult for American students, which makes it all the more challenging for our LL.M. students who are studying a different legal system in a different language,” he says. “The English language preparation we do before their arrival can go a long way to ensuring their success at St. John’s and, later, in their careers.”

Assisted by a team of St. John’s J.D. students called “language ambassadors,” Professor Alter leads the LL.M. students through speaking, listening, reading, and writing exercises and works with them on topics ranging from the foundations of the U.S. legal system to writing a case brief and understanding law-related current events in the United States. “The program helps our students feel more confident when they get to campus,” Professor Alter shares. “The friendships they forge with their classmates and with our language ambassadors also give them a real sense of belonging to our larger St. John’s Law family.”

Those early bonds forged between LL.M. students from different countries and backgrounds continue to strengthen at St. John’s, where they meet weekly in small tutorial groups with top-performing, globally-minded, and well-connected J.D. students who serve as their Teaching Assistants. “The bond between our LL.M. students and their TAs is integral to our program,” Dean Kelly explains. “In this small group setting, the LL.M. students get to review concepts from class, workshop assignments, and ask questions of more experienced students. It’s a mutually rewarding relationship, since the J.D. students learn by teaching and enhance their own education and career development with the global perspective, and global network, that the LL.M. students provide.”

“It’s been interesting to learn with people from different countries, who have different English language skills, different cultures, and different traditions that all cross with the law,” says Vitaliia Yurchak, a USLS student who earned a law degree in her native Ukraine and now lives in Staten Island, NY. She plans to take the New York Bar Exam this summer. A number of her USLS classmates will join her, and will benefit from the academic enhancement offered by the BELS program, with its focus on writing strategies and language support for LLM students specific to Bar Exam essay writing.

As he completes his semester of studies in the TLP program, Barry Zhang, looks forward to becoming the first lawyer in his family when he earns his degree from CYU next month. He’s grateful for the opportunities that St. John’s LL.M. program offers him to “think, talk, and write with facility in English.” China needs people like him, he says. “Now, when I solve a problem, I can change another’s mind because I can see things from different perspectives.”

To learn more about the Legal English and LL.M. programs at St. John’s Law, please visit our website at or contact us at You can also follow the St. John’s Legal English Blog produced by Professors Horowitz and Piper.