International students | Law

International students

If you are an international student, you have to deal with a new country and perhaps a different language. You may have to deal with migration issues, visas, and learning about a different culture. UNSW has an international student centre which can help with all the general things international students have to deal with.

On this page you'll find some specific things which might be helpful to you as an international law student.

International Student Support Advisors

Here at UNSW Law we have International Student Support Advisors who are academic member of staff and your first port of call for academic issues or concerns you might have. The Advisors also convene workshops throughout the year on a range of topics such as preparing for class, class participation and preparing for your assessments.

Dr Melissa Crouch (melissa.crouch@unsw.edu.au) and Associate Professor Charlie Weng (xiaochuan.weng@unsw.edu.au) are the International Student Support Advisors.

Doing law when English is not your first language

Law is a language-based discipline. Because of this, doing law in a language which is not your own is exceptionally challenging.  One thing to keep in mind is that when English-speakers learn law they also feel as if they are having to learn a new language and culture, so you, as an international student may effectively have to do that twice. It may be helpful to you to do some or all of the following things:

  • Study a program of academic English if you can.
  • Use the Learning Centre’s English conversation programs – go to the Learning Centre and you can use audio tapes and headphones to improve your English.
  • Watch Australian TV in English as much as possible, even if you find it hard to understand, and even if you are homesick. 
  • Try to speak English outside class, even with your friends. If you spend all your time speaking Mandarin except for four hours a week in class, your English will not improve enough to be good enough for law.
  • Try to get to know the Australian students in the class so you can practise English with them. Hopefully this will happen easily because you are put in groups to do something in class. Tell them your name and ask them theirs.  Most Australian students will be delighted to go with you for a cup of coffee on campus sometime if you ask them – they are as shy as you are; and if you say to them you want to practise English they will usually be helpful.  If they are not try someone else.

Class participation

Many classes in the law school award marks for class participation. Many international students find this challenging and may seek to avoid it. It is important to see why class participation is regarded as important and to use it to gain the maximum benefit for yourself.

  • Any professional must be able to articulate an argument to a client or someone else. This is a general professional skill, and practising this in a class develops the skill. 
  • Learning to speak in class will help develop good oral skills – pitching the voice properly, listening actively and being able to reflect what has just been said so that it is clear that you understand and can deal with the material.
  • Listening to other students in class as well as the lecturer enriches the amount you can learn by exposing you to others’ viewpoints and the things they know.

So, if you find it difficult here are some tips for those who feel shy or anxious:

  • Make sure you speak in one of the first two classes. In the early classes little is expected of you and you will feel less anxious if you have done it early. It also sets up a good relationship with the teacher.
  • Asking questions is good class participation. If you have attempted to read the material and you do not understand it, putting your hand up and saying, for example, ‘I read case X but I do not understand why the judge said Y’ is good CP – it shows you have been reading for class, and if you didn’t understand probably others didn’t either and the teacher can explain or others can if they did.
  • Some teachers will allow you to make some arrangement for CP which makes it easier for you to start off. For example, a teacher might tell you in advance that in the next class you will be expected to tell the class the facts of a certain case.
  • Note well: in relation to speaking in class there are two kinds of students - Group A: those who learn by talking, and Group B: those who usually don’t talk until they are satisfied that they have learned something. If you are in Group B don’t allow the fact that some students seem to be talking a lot to dishearten you because you are assuming they are like you and won’t talk until they understand. They are probably Group A students and don’t know any more than you do!

LawPLUS - social mentoring program for undergraduates

If you are an undergraduate it is very useful to join the LawPLUS mentoring program. In this program about 8 students will meet weekly for the first few weeks of session with two senior students. This is a really good way to learn about the law school and how it works and to get to know other students. Sign up as soon as possible, preferably at the student welcome or the first day of session.

Peer Tutor Program - academic support for first year law students

For international students, especially those for whom English is not their first language, the Peer Tutor program is especially useful. Because it consists of a group of up to 4 people working with a senior student tutor, it is an excellent opportunity to test your initial understanding of legal language and your academic English. You are very strongly encouraged to sign up for this free program of academic support.

Coming from a different legal system

Some international students find it difficult to get used to the critical analytical style which is the foundation of our university education system.  Our students are expected to be able to critically analyse material they are given to study. This means that you check the material to consider some of these things:

  • Is it logical?
  • Is it based on assumptions that are not valid?
  • Does it fail to consider material that should have been considered?  Eg does it ignore some new evidence? Does it fail to consider the historical material? Does it fail to consider some social or other context?

This also means that it is fine to politely disagree with your teacher. For example the teacher might make a statement, but you think that there is an underlying assumption that is wrong about that statement. It is OK for you to say ‘Excuse me, Professor X, doesn’t that statement assume Y? I understand that Y is not the case.’ The teacher will then be able to either explain why that assumption does not underlie the statement, or why Y is  the case or say something like, ‘Thank you,  it is true that we should look further into this statement because Y may be a problem for it'.  In this way knowledge is advanced. Notice that the student here disagreed on the basis of evidence, not just because he or she did not like the proposition or had some feeling about it.

Some cultural tips about Australians

As with any culture it is very hard to generalise about Australians.  But some things that you might find useful to know include:

  • Australians are relatively informal and will use first names in most situations (except where dealing with a much older person or in a very formal business situation).  You will find in the law school that your teacher will expect you to call them by their first name, whether they are a Lecturer or a Professor.
  • Australians are very straightforward in many ways. If they ask you to go somewhere or offer you food or drink and you say no, they will usually accept that immediately. There is no process where they insist until you give in. So you don’t need to be invited twice.
  • Australians use the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more than some other cultures. It is wise to use these words liberally. They also will apologise if they bump you accidentally or for other small accidents. Saying ‘sorry’ is important, and it is regarded as rude not to do it.