How does a law student learn to view the world through judicial glasses?

Foto van Alma Besic

Like all professionals, jurists use jargon. Non-jurists often describe this jargon as complex. But how is this specific legal language taught to future jurists? Alma Besic (24) wrote her master's thesis about this topic; Teaching law students legal language. How tutors teach students to speak and to think in the language of the legal profession. The thesis of the Erasmus School of Law master student was awarded the Jan Brouwer Thesis Award. 

What moment did you realise, 'Law, that is going to be it'?
Alma says that the exact moment was a while ago. "I noticed in high school that I was curious about the law. Mostly the social side of the law; What does the law mean for society? What is it about? And does the feeling of justice appear in it?" Therefore, she decided to study Law in her hometown Tilburg. 

Next, you decided to study in Rotterdam. What made you decide that?
"I went on exchange to Zagreb in Croatia during my bachelor programme", states Alma. "You end up in a whole new and dynamic setting with a new culture and a new language. You get to know so many new people from all over the world. And you also get to know yourself a lot better", tells Alma enthusiastically. Therefore, Alma strongly encourages students to go on exchange if they have the opportunity. 

Alma was really inspired by the new environment in Zagreb and the new people she met. Back home, she decided to continue down this line in her studies; "Changing cities is a really nice thing to do as a student. A new university, new surroundings."

The main thing Alma takes with her from her study days in Rotterdam is following her passion. "And finding something that really fits with you", she adds. "Maybe that is possible anywhere, but I really had the chance in Rotterdam."

"Changing cities is a really nice thing to do as a student. New university, new surroundings."

You have two master degrees; why these and why a second?
After obtaining her bachelor of Laws, Alma decided to start with the master of Health Law. "But the master's was lacking the possibility to reflect on existing laws and to obtain certain research skills", she argues. The second master programme, Legal Theory & Socio-Legal Studies, offered her a lot of in-depth knowledge. "What I really enjoyed during my second master was learning how to conduct qualitative research. And as a law student, you normally do not learn this."

And another master's? "Well, two master's is enough at the moment", Alma laughs. But continuing to study is still is an option; "I have always been curious and eager to learn. In that sense, I always want to keep learning new things." 

Can you explain the subject of your thesis?
"Jurists use their own separate language, and they are expected to adhere to specific language standards in the legal profession. With this language, they look at the world and at problems in a certain way", Alma explains. "It is like looking through a set of judicial glasses." The jurist tells us that her research is about tutors' role in teaching the juridical language to students. Alma's gathered information consisted of literature, participating observations and interviews. "I did not follow problem-based learning myself", Alma states. "This type of education was new for me. It felt like I was looking at it as an outsider. But I did finish my bachelor programme, so I can understand how students feel when confronted with various new judicial terms. Especially in the first year."

Why did you pick this topic?
"I have always liked languages", Alma says. "I was raised bilingual: Dutch and Bosnian", she adds. Language is essential, especially for jurists. "It is often said that language is your instrument. Language is your tool", Alma explains. "But what is this language? And how do you start looking at things differently because of it?"

Alma chose to research the subject because of the interesting element of languages and the important role language plays in the judicial world. "Step one is to look at the language that is being taught; are students corrected consciously or unconsciously? And which language standards are taught? Step two is whether individuals look at problems in a different way after learning this language; what do you see with these judicial glasses and what not?"

Foto van uitreiking Alma Besic

"Language is your instrument, your tool.

But what is this language? And how do you start looking at different things?"

How did you experience the process of writing your thesis?
In five to six months, Alma completed her thesis. She did this under the supervision of Nina Holvast, Assistant Professor Empirical Legal Studies at Erasmus School of Law. "The work itself was exciting, especially in the beginning", Alma admits. "In hindsight, everything worked out okay. But if I had started with my thesis two weeks later, I would have been too late with the observation of the first-year tutor groups", she says.  

How was the guidance during the process of writing your thesis? 
"What I really appreciated was that Nina (red. Nina Holvast, the supervisor of Alma) took her time for me", she recalls. "We could communicate with each other very well. She understood me, and I understood her. It felt equal", she states.  

Nina made sure that Alma's thesis became one story. "When I started talking, she’d often tell me: ‘All right, but can you transform it into one story?' And that is actually what a thesis is. A story", Alma continues. 

Nina Holvast also appreciated the cooperation with Alma. "It was delightful to coach Alma", the supervisor states. "Mostly the moments when we reviewed the concepts she had handed in", Holvast continues. "Those moments truly showed how profound Alma had thought about her data."

Did you know you could win thesis awards?
"No", said Alma with a smile on her face. "At the end of my thesis, I read something about thesis awards, but before that time, I didn't know anything about their existence."

How did you experience the process of being nominated for an award and winning an award?
"I felt very honoured", starts Alma when we talk about her nomination for this award by her supervisor. "I was nominated after I graduated. The communication about it went via email. I was very surprised", was how she described her reaction to being nominated.

For Alma winning the award felt like a dream. She proudly presents her certificate. "Here it is!".

Supervisor Nina Holvast decided to nominate Alma's thesis for the Jan Brouwer Thesis Award 2022. "She knows how to make the connection between the theory of language socialization and her findings of the working method of the Erasmus School of Law' tutors beautifully", explains Holvast. On the question of whether she expected Alma to win the award, the supervisor replies that it depends on the elements that the jury takes the most into consideration. "But I am very happy that the jury recognised what an excellent job Alma has done!". 

What do you want to put into motion with your thesis?
"I hope that my thesis will make people who have a legal profession and law students think again", says Alma. "Despite the need for a language that is clearer, newcomers are expected to conform to certain linguistic standards in the legal profession. That creates tension", according to Alma. Therefore, she hopes that her thesis will make people think of the appreciation for juridical language.

Holvast also hopes that Alma's thesis will put something in motion: "I hope that we will hear much more of Alma in the field of academics".

Do you have any advice for our current and future students?
"Don't be too fixated on achieving high marks", is Alma's advice. "Find and use your creativity", she adds.

And for the current thesis students? "When you are writing your thesis, and you find yourself stuck and uninspired, change the setting. Go for a walk or listen to some music. My greatest ideas came to me when I took my mind of the thesis.

"Find and use your creativity."

More information

More information about thesis awards
Are you curious which thesis awards you can win and how you can qualify to be nominated for a thesis award? Do not hesitate to contact your thesis supervisor. And who knows, you might win a fantastic thesis award just like Alma.

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