I Failed to Persuade a Student to Respect Paraphrasing, but Another Lawyer Succeeded… Or… The ACLU Demonstrated the Value of 

Paraphrasing…Or….That Brief Convinced the Student he Should Practice Paraphrasing…Or…

A recent case, in which a student cursed her school online, provided a useful way to show international students the value of paraphrasing. How can a lawyer discuss an online post, in which a student wrote “F __ School”, in the best possible way for his client?

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about paraphrasing…let’s discuss paraphrasing ….let’s spend some time on the topic of paraphrasing…

Paraphrasing just means using different words to express the meaning of other words.

Paraphrasing is an important skill for law students and lawyers and a useful way to improve legal English.

For law students, paraphrasing is an effective way to demonstrate understanding. While law students should use precise legal terms, and may need to quote directly from a case, students often need to explain what they know in their own words.

The ability to paraphrase, or at least describe things in different ways, can help law students, including international students in a number of ways:

  • An instructor might ask a student to explain a clause in the US Constitution, but with more modern vocabulary.
  • A student might want to quote a judge’s decision in his Note, but will need to discuss the decision using her own words.
  • A law school exam might require a student to explain how a statute could be interpreted in different ways.

Lawyers also paraphrase all the time. Sometimes lawyers need to express ideas differently for different audiences. For example, a lawyer might express a legal point one way for a judge, but a different way for a juror. As we’ll see in a moment, lawyers may also need to paraphrase  facts in a way that will not prejudice their clients.

If you do not speak English as a first language, you can strengthen your language skills by paraphrasing on your own. For example, if you are walking down the street, and see a sign in English, try to express the meaning of the sign in English, but using different words.


The Student who Hated Paraphrasing (or…the Student who Detested Paraphrasing…or The Pupil who Preferred to Say Things Only One Way… Or….)


I tend to ask students to do a fair amount of paraphrasing in my classes. A professor I admire includes paraphrasing  in his own classes, and it seems to be so effective, I just can’t stop.

Maybe I overdo it? Anyway, one student made it pretty clear that he hated it. I think he figured it was a waste of time because, from his perspective, he should just learn the “best” words to use under any given circumstance. And I could not convince him that paraphrasing is an important skill.  

Probably, the student resented me because I had not shown him specific examples of why paraphrasing is useful. He may have thought that being challenged to express words with different words was just an annoying test of his English, with little practical value.


The ACLU to the Rescue

Then I came across this brief to the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to not grant certiorari in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. I am using this case to introduce the First Amendment and case law to students who are learning legal English and hoping to attend an LLM Program in the United States. 

The case concerns the free speech rights of a high school student who took to SnapChat to curse her school. “F_ School, F_ Softball…” After the school disciplined the student, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case, arguing that the student’s speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Besides for illustrating how case law develops in the United States, Mahanoy illustrates why paraphrasing is important. Repeating the student’s language verbatim, or simply describing her language as “cursing” on social media, does not present the factual background in a way particularly favorable for the student. 

So…the ACLU framed the issue in this case as whether an ephemeral and colorful expression of frustration is protected under the First Amendment.

Here is how the ACLU frames the issue. First, the posting on SnapChat is “ephemeral”. Ephemeral sounds magical. Lovely.

Next,  F_School is … a colorful expression of frustration. This sounds great!

I realize that this may not simply be paraphrasing, but also using different descriptive words. In any event, it made for a good illustration in class.


The students and I worked through the language to see how the writer chose favorable words for his client. And, I was somewhat pleased that the student who hated paraphrasing, seemed to have a better appreciation for its usefulness.

Maybe he won’t love paraphrasing going forward, but I am hopeful that he is less likely to deride it with colorful expressions of frustration.