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Innovative Spanish for Law program helps students gain confidence with legal Spanish

November 24, 2020

Many students who come to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School having studied a foreign language — or even having grown up speaking one —discover their fluency does not automatically extend to legal matters. As every 1L quickly learns, the law is a language all its own, with a unique vocabulary and special conventions of expression. “Spanish for Law,” a new program offered by the Office of International Affairs, is designed to shrink this fluency gap by helping Spanish-speaking students become confident using Spanish legal terminology.

The program blends asynchronous recorded modules with a live discussion group.

“Each week, there’s a new set of videos on different law-related topics — from what it’s like to train as a lawyer in Guatemala to criminal procedure in Colombia,” said program participant Laura Welborn L’23. The curriculum covers different aspects of both public and private law.

“The videos are put together by LLM students and graduates from various countries in Latin America,” said Welborn, “so it’s been particularly interesting to compare and contrast the practices to those in the U.S. as well as to see the unique differences among countries in Latin America.”

Rebecca Wallace L’21 said she particularly likes that the program provides videos featuring speakers from a wide range of countries.

“It really makes you listen to catch the particular accents,” she said.

Welborn majored in Spanish and Portuguese studies as an undergraduate, then went on to work in financial services, often using Spanish while serving clients in Latin America. Now she hopes to pursue a career in cross-border M&A work.

“Having strong language skills and a legal vocabulary in Spanish will not only make me more effective in executing the more technical aspects of deals,” she said, “but will also help me build better connections with clients and other parties whose primary language is Spanish.”

Wallace came to the program after working as a translator for Law School clinics and using Spanish with her own pro bono clients.

“I had to do a lot of extra vocab work to be able to clearly explain legal issues,” she said. “I hope that a greater familiarity with legal terms will help me to be more precise when working with clients.”

Students also reported treasuring their discussion group, which Welborn called “one of the highlights of my week.” Wallace said that the group is a refreshing opportunity to use “a different part of my brain.”

Especially now in the COVID era with many students learning remotely and fewer opportunities to become friends with classmates, the program has also created a context for social connection. Meri Baghdasaryan LLM ’21 said that, in addition to sharpening her existing Spanish skills, the program “has been a welcome way to connect with my peers.”

Welborn agreed.

“The program is a nice way to connect with others in the Penn Law community who also share my passion for Spanish, especially 1Ls outside of my section, upperclassmen, and LLMs,” she said.

At least one student has already begun to reap the benefits of the program. In a recent job interview, Jeffrey Simon L’22 was unexpectedly asked a question in Spanish. He was able to respond spontaneously, he said, because he was getting regular practice speaking the language thanks to the program.

Director of International Affairs Lauren Owens said that the program has generated tremendous interest in its inaugural year. Based on this semester’s success, Owens said, “we’re planning to pilot a different program model for the Spring semester that will allow us to provide discussion groups for an expanded selection of foreign languages.”

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This piece originally appeared on the Penn Law newsfeed.