Hafner PhD thesis 

Designing, Implementing and Evaluating an Online Resource for Professional Legal Communication Skills

Please cite as:

Hafner, C. A. (2008). Designing, implementing and evaluating an online resource for professional legal communication skills. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney.

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The ability to use language effectively is an essential part of legal training and has been identified as an area of concern for Hong Kong law students. In order to become proficient members of the legal discourse community, law students must develop an understanding of conventional writing forms, processes and practices as well as patterns of legal reasoning and problem-solving. However, in general, practitioners of legal education in Hong Kong tend to see language skills development as falling outside their area of responsibility. As a consequence, time and resources allocated to the important task of enhancing English for legal purposes are minimal.

In view of these constraints, it was felt that a computer-mediated online resource integrated with existing law courses would most effectively provide students with the language support that they needed. A small team of legal academics and language professionals collaborated in the development of the resource. The computer tools developed include: a Microsoft Word add-on, with help files designed to guide students in the writing process; an online concordancer with links to glossaries of legal terminology and academic vocabulary, and further links to legal and language dictionaries; and a genre-based web site with tasks, with content developed by legal academics and language professionals.

A number of issues arise in the development and implementation of such a computer-mediated resource for teaching and learning. For example, content must be designed to address gaps in students’ understanding of discourse community conventions (including form, process and practice as mentioned above). In addition, technological tools that clearly integrate with the students’ learning process and facilitate that process should be provided. Further, it is desirable that computer-mediated learning tools provide students with a mix of both formal and informal learning opportunities, promote student involvement and control, and provide students with space for planning and evaluating learning experiences. It is also important that students learn skills and strategies that will be of use to them once they move on from the academic environment to the professional world of work.

This thesis evaluates law students’ understanding of discourse conventions in relation to professional legal genres, by comparing student text and associated interviews with the text of established legal professionals. The thesis also evaluates student online behaviour, through a combination of large-scale logging of students’ online activity and small-scale user tests, observation, analysis of learner journals and interviews. Data collected over a 2 year period are compared in order to ascertain what kind of learning activities were perceived to be valuable to students and why. Implications are drawn from this study and suggestions made for changes in future practice.

Table of contents

1 Introduction   
2 The social and institutional context of legal practice and training in Hong Kong   
3 Teaching and learning professional legal communication: Theoretical considerations for an online resource   
4 Design of the LAWS resources   
5 Genre analysis of barrister's opinion: Background and methodology   
6 Genre analysis of barrister's opinion: Results   
7 Monitoring learner behaviour in LAWS: Epistemological and methodological issues   
8 Monitoring learner behaviour in LAWS: Research design   
9 Monitoring online learning behaviour: Results   
10 Monitoring learners' corpus consultation behaviour: Results   
11 Conclusions and implications   

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