Handling Your First Foreign Language Document Review

Although I’m not quite finished with mine, I’m close enough that I think I can write this and have some credibility.  As the title suggests, I’ve been working on my first German document review for around five weeks.  When I first started this assignment, I tried to do some research on what to expect, but I didn’t find much.  So I’d like to share some of that information in case anyone else is wondering.  I should probably add the disclaimer that I’m mostly directing this towards people who truly are independent in the language, and definitely functional beyond the basics of asking directions, responding to simple questions, etc.  So I’m not directing this at real beginners.  At the same time, I’m also not directing it towards those who are native speakers of a non-English language or those who can read, understand, and actively use legal terminology.

Language Skills

My first real question was of course, how much do I actually need to know.  I wasn’t entirely sure what level the language needed to be.  In my opinion, I would say that if you can go online and find a news site in the foreign language, and get through it more or less without needing to consult a dictionary or Google Translate, your skills are most likely acceptable for first level review where you will only be expected to read documents and determine if they are relevant/not relevant (for those of you who may want a CEFR equivalent, I would say B1+ to B2 should be sufficient).  You will most likely have to take a test of some kind, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds.  I’ve heard various opinions of these tests ranging from “too easy” to “too difficult.”  For me, I found it to be a pretty fair assessment; it wasn’t so easy that I didn’t need to try, but it wasn’t too difficult either.  I genuinely found it to be a pretty good test, but mine only required a reading test, which may be different depending on the skills required for a particular review.


Like I said before, if you are doing a first level review, your responsibilities will essentially be the same as they would be for an English language review.  Of course, there is always the possibility that you will need to do a quick, on the spot translation for a project manager, but that generally won’t happen too frequently unless you have a question about a document.  Really for a first level review, the only time you would need to “translate” would be if you read a document and don’t know whether to make it responsive, in which case you clearly have understood what it said, and just summarizing it to your project manager should be sufficient.  Actual translating most likely won’t be done until your first review is finished.  That certainly does require a different set of skills, which you may or may not be able to handle, which brings me to my next point:

Language Improvement

In looking back at my German between when I started the project, and where I am now, I can say that my skills have increased significantly.  Although I’ve been “limited” to reading, I can see that my writing and active vocabulary has improved as well.  For example, I’m writing a German post which I hope to have up in the next week, and I have not needed to use a dictionary yet.  I also do consider my reading to be active use in this context–I can more easily read words and just know what they are, not merely “guessing from context.”  I had to use a dictionary quite a bit during the first two weeks, because in document review you see a lot of vocabulary which just isn’t taught in school or learned through reading newspapers/books and watching tv shows.  In working on this project, I was able to read contracts, purchase orders, agreements, even those confidentiality notices at the bottom of e-mails and grammatically incorrect German.  All of these have helped to increase my vocabulary and my reading speed.  I don’t know that I can quantify how much my skills have improved, after all, I certainly wouldn’t be able to reproduce the texts I’ve read, but I definitely have a much better understanding of the language than I did before this project began.  So while you certainly won’t go from zero to native during that time, you definitely will come out much improved.

Advice and Suggestions

I think that taking part in a foreign language document review requires a very delicate balance between being able to function in the language and learning the language.  On one hand, your skills should be functional to a certain extent.  For example, you should be able to read at a pretty good pace.  At the same time, you will most likely not go in knowing everything about the language, and will need some dictionary help during the first week.  What I would suggest is that you really make an effort during the first week to learn and remember the new vocabulary you’re seeing.  If you run into words which look like they could appear again, look it up, write it down, and try to do a review of vocabulary at the end of the week.  If you find that the review is becoming a lot more manageable and your numbers are above where they need to be, it is also helpful to slow down and really focus on each sentence and how the structure is formed.  You certainly don’t want to do this at the expense of getting enough finished in the course of a day, which is why I would only recommend to deliberately do it if your numbers are higher than required.  On some days that will definitely happen, and the extra focus will definitely help.

Final Thoughts

In your first foreign language review, you could definitely come out either much improved or barely improved, depending on how you handle it.  If you’re an attorney looking for some extra income to hold you over, and you do have “enough” functional ability in a foreign language, I would highly recommend trying to do a document review.  It’s certainly not “easy,” but if you really make an effort, I think you will see a great improvement in your ability by the time the review is finished.  I imagine that I will be much more confident the next time I do a German document review!

I hope this (unusually long) post has helped to address and answer some of the questions I had but never had answers for until I started this.


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