Can Finnish lawyers speak English?

Rupert Haigh graduated from Cambridge University in English in 1992 and qualified as a solicitor in England in 1997. He is managing partner of Forum Legal, a Helsinki-based firm which specializes in the provision of legal language training and materials to lawyers.

Rupert, what do you think about Finnish lawyers’ legal English skills?

Most Finnish lawyers are highly skilled in using English. This is perhaps particularly the case for younger lawyers (though plenty of older lawyers are also very competent in English), and even more particularly the case for young female lawyers. I have noticed a very clear trend in Finland for women to be much more interested in language training than men.

As far as typical problems for Finns are concerned, a few issues come to mind:

Prepositions and articles. I think there are two difficulties here. The first is that since neither prepositions nor articles are used in Finnish they are unfamiliar. The second is that, especially where prepositions are concerned, their usage is horribly illogical and quite difficult to teach. At the same time, however, it is important to get them right when drafting legal documents. A single incorrect preposition can sometimes make a big practical difference.

For instance, compare ‘the goods must be moved to the warehouse’ with ‘the goods must be moved into the warehouse’ – in the first case the goods will be standing outside the warehouse, and in the second they will be inside the warehouse. That might make a big difference if it’s raining.

Literal translations from Finnish which don’t work in English. For instance, immateriaalioikeudet are not ‘immaterial rights’ but ‘intellectual property rights’. The word ‘immaterial’ usually means ‘of no importance or relevance’, so it can be seen that this is quite an important distinction.

Similar problems can arise in spoken language, particularly where common expressions are concerned. For instance, if you tell an English speaker that you are going to ‘lift the cat onto the table’, they will almost certainly miss the point of the expression and merely think you are making a remarkably odd suggestion. On the other hand, if an English speaker tells you that someone is ‘flogging a dead horse’ you might be forgiven for thinking that they are involved in a highly suspicious activity. In fact, this expression means to waste time trying to do something that won’t work.

Sentence construction. In particular, Finns sometimes have difficulties in creating the subject of a sentence correctly. This is partly the result of differences between English and Finnish. For instance, in Finnish you can simply say ‘sataa (vettä)’, but it English you cannot just say ‘raining’. You have to say, ‘it is raining’. In other words, you need to create a subject (‘it’) even though what ‘it’ is remains obscure.

I have also noticed a thoroughly lawyer-like addiction to passive forms: ‘reference is made to your letter of 4 September’ instead of the (usually much better) active form: ‘we / I refer to you letter of 4 September’.

Difficulties with Latin terminology and other legal jargon. A number of Latin phrases remain in current use in legal English. Most Finnish lawyers are familiar with old favourites like inter alia, but there are a number of more obscure phrases (such as ab initio, in situ, per se, prima facie) which are sometimes more problematic. Aspects of legal jargon, such as the here-, there- and where- words (such as hereby, therein, whereof etc) which are still found in legal documents, can also cause difficulties.

You have now spent ten years in Finland. Can you see any changes in English skills in Finland?

They (people’s English skills) continue to improve from what was already quite a high baseline. Soon I’ll be out of a job…

In general, one might say that among older people English skills vary rather widely, but among younger people it’s relatively unusual to find anyone who doesn’t have a fairly good command of English.

Due to this, employers can now assume that most new employees will have a good command of general English. Employers are looking for training in specific types of English (legal, financial, medical etc) instead.

What would you like to say to Finnish lawyers? Can you give any quick hints how they could improve their English skills?

The first question is easy to answer: keep up the good work! Most Finnish lawyers are very skilled in using English, and the level of ability and familiarity with the English language is going up all the time.

Turning to the second question, as far as spoken English is concerned, the key element is confidence. Finns tend to underestimate their competence in English and to worry about making mistakes. There is usually no need for this, partly because the majority of Finns speak extremely good English; and partly because where speaking in concerned, the odd minor mistake here and there doesn’t matter. The main thing is to have confidence – or at least to look as if you have confidence – in what you are saying.

As far as written English is concerned, I have given a few tips above, but I’m not sure there are any short cuts. Everyone who has studied English as a foreign language tells me that it starts easy and then gets harder to harder…


Syksyllä ilmestyi Rupert Haighin uusin kirja The Legal English Workbook, Lakimiesliiton Kustannus. Kirja on saatavilla hyvin varustetuista kirjakaupoista tai sen voi tilata osoitteesta