Called the language of legal documents, legalese is a big part of the legal field and will therefore be a big part of your job as a paralegal. Precise, formal language, peppered with unusual, even archaic words, has made the legalese that’s used for even basic legal terms a frustrating and largely unintelligible language for the average person. But legal jargon has been part of the legal world for hundreds of years, so one thing is for sure – it’s not going anywhere.
There’s long been a push for clearer language and more accessible law terms in legal documents. President Nixon ordered the use of “layman’s terms” in the Federal Register in 1972, and President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2020 in an attempt to “promote clear communication that the public can understand and use.”
But don’t expect legal jargon to fall by the wayside anytime soon.
Legalese and the obscure law terms used as part of it dates way back, some four hundred years, to the Anglo-Saxon laws when the birth of terms like deem, oath, and writ took hold. Legal terms are influenced by the Latin, French, and English languages (most lawyers were fluent in all three and each language was used in different domains), making them even more difficult to understand. For example, you can still see French influences in the legal field, like the addition of an “e” to the term squire, thus making esquire.
Most lawyers will tell you that legal jargon and archaic legal terms are important to safeguard legal documents from misinterpretation. Legal terms can only mean one thing, so there’s little chance of misconstruing a document. Legalese actually provides predictability and consistency in the field, which is particularly important when comparing old case law to new.
And while you may find some current legal terms being used in place of archaic ones (subpoena is often replaced with witness summons and plaintiff for claimant, for example), do yourself a favor and get to know legal terms and their meanings because they’re sure to play a starring role in your everyday life as a paralegal.
Understanding Legal Jargon: Top Legal Terms and Meanings for Paralegals
Whether you’re just starting a new job or if you’ve been serving a law firm loyally for years, it seems like there is always new legal jargon to learn. Those mysterious words will play a big part in your career as a paralegal, so it’s important to get familiar with basic legal terms (often called “terms of art”) and common legal phrases (often referred to as “specialized terminology”).
We’ve listed the top 30 legal terms and phrases we think every paralegal should know, whether you’re getting your bearings in a paralegal internship, prepping for job interviews, or a seasoned pro looking to test yourself to see if you know all these essential law terms by heart.
- Ad damnum (also called the wherefore clause): Latin for “according to the harm,” ad damnum is a commonly used clause in tort law that details a maximum amount of money that a plaintiff can collect if the defendant fails to appear in court.
- Additur: When a judge adds an amount above what a jury has awarded. The party that must pay has the option of paying the award or undergoing a new trial. An additur is not regularly used just because a judge thinks a verdict amount is too low; instead, it’s only used in cases where the jury verdict is grossly low, constituting a miscarriage of justice.
- Ad hoc: Latin for “what is at hand,” ad hoc means a solution for a specific purpose or something that is done or created for a particular purpose. For example, an ad hoc committee may be created solely for the purpose of addressing a specific issue.
- Ad litem: Latin for “the current legal matter,” ad litem generally refers to the appointment of a person by the court to represent a specific party. For example, an attorney ad litem may represent a child’s interest in a divorce or child abuse case.
- Adjective law: Often referred to as procedural law, adjective law is an area of law that deals with procedural rules of evidence, pleadings, and practice. It’s a part of the law that provides a method for enforcing or maintaining rights, or how substantive law is enforced.
- Adverse judgment: A final judgment in favor of the defendant.
- All fours: All fours, or “on all fours” is used to describe two relevant cases. For example, when the client’s case is on all fours, it’s significantly similar to a previous case found through research. The previous case therefore sets the legal precedent for the current case.
- Alternate writ: A court’s demand that a person appear and explain something. Often used when requiring a person to appear to explain an absence from a previous hearing.
- Assumpsit: Latin for “he promised,” assumpsit refers to an implied promise in a contract. An assumpsit is used to recover damages in the event of breach of contract.
- Colloquy: A private discussion between the lawyers and the judge. In the criminal courts, colloquy may also refer to an investigation to ensure that a defendant’s plea was given purposely, voluntarily, and intelligently and that the defendant understands his or her rights before entering into a guilty plea.
- Compensatory damages: Damages recovered for actual monetary loss. Compensatory damages include doctors’ bills, lost wages, hospital stays, and more.
- Declaratory judgment: A declaratory judgment occurs when a judge determines specific rights or obligations of either party without awarding damages or granting relief. It resolves any legal uncertainties for the litigants.
- Demurrer: A formal request for a dismissal to a complaint filed in a lawsuit, essentially saying there’s no legal basis for a lawsuit. If a judge grants the demurrer, the claimant has an opportunity to amend the complaint. For example, a lawsuit that addresses the wrong party as the defendant may require the attorney to file a demurrer that asks the court to dismiss the actions because there’s no legal standing for the case.
- Ex parte hearing: Hearings, motions, or orders where only one party is present. Ex parte hearings are often reserved for urgent matters where one party may be subject to irreparable harm if notice is given to the other party. Temporary restraining order hearings are often conducted ex parte.
- Full faith and credit: A doctrine meaning that one state must honor the laws and judgments of another state. Every state must recognize another state’s public records, judicial proceedings, and legislative acts.
- In forma pauperis: Latin for “as a pauper,” in forma pauperis allows a plaintiff to sue without incurring court costs. Indigent persons may be given permission by the court to initiate a legal action without paying for court fees due to a lack of financial resources.
- In limine: Latin for “threshold,” a motion in limine is brought up at a pretrial hearing regarding the admissibility of evidence; it’s usually used as a request to exclude certain testimony or evidence.
- Laches: A doctrine that dictates that a person’s legal right may be denied if they take too long to seek legal action. In other words, an unreasonable delay by a person seeking a legal right or claim (usually in civil court) can prevent it from being enforced.
- Malfeasance: Anything done illegally or immorally. Any abuse of authority or dishonesty would fall under this term.
- Mens rea: This common legal term is Latin for “guilty mind” and is used to describe the criminal intent of the individual when committing a criminal act. If someone is proven mens rea, then they had awareness of their own criminal actions.
- Noelle prosequi: A Latin phrase meaning “not wish to prosecute,” noelle prosequi is an entry of record detailing that a prosecutor has decided not to prosecute or a plaintiff has decided not move forward with a lawsuit.
- Nolo contendere: A no-contest plea; a defendant won’t contest the charges but admits no guilt. A nolo contendere plea means accepting conviction as though a guilty plea has been entered but without admitting guilt.
- Prima facie: Latin for “at first look,” prima facie refers to what is presumed after the first disclosure. “Prima facie case” is therefore used to describe a case that is proven by viewing the facts alone.
- Provisional remedy: A temporary court order that protects someone from incurring any more damage while further legal action is pending. A temporary restraining order is a good example of a provisional remedy.
- Punitive damages: Punitive damages are monetary awards designed specifically to set an example or punish. The judge may reward punitive damages to a plaintiff if he or she deems the action of a defendant particularly egregious. Punitive damages are most often awarded in civil cases.
- Res judicata: A Latin doctrine meaning “a matter judged,” res judicata means that a case that has been judged on its merits will not be relitigated. It prevents a party from re-litigating a matter already litigated, thereby ensuring the finality of judgments.
- Stare decisis: Latin for “to stand by things decided,” stare decisis refers to earlier cases as sources of law. Therefore, when a court has already ruled on an issue, other issues in the same court must receive the same response.
- Tort: From the French word for “wrong,” a tort is an illegal act or crime (battery, assault, fraud, theft) that injures someone else, regardless of whether it’s intentional or accidental.
- Voir dire: The questioning of prospective jurors to determine their fitness to sit for a case. It may also be used to describe the process of questioning potential witnesses to determine of their testimony will be appropriate or relevant to the case at hand.
- Wobbler: Crimes that may be classified as either felonies or misdemeanors are frequently referred to as wobblers. In wobbler cases, a prosecutor may push for a felony while the defense fights for lowering the crime to a misdemeanor.
Ready to take your paralegal career to the next level? Now that you’re familiar with legal terms, learn how to work smarter. Here’s 10 software solutions for paralegals.