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134 Legal Terms Every Lawyer, Paralegal, and Law Student Should Know

published November 16, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
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Summary: Important legal terms lawyers, paralegals, and law students should recognize.
134 Legal Terms Every Lawyer, Paralegal, and Law Student Should Know

Included in the list below are definitions of some of the legal words and phrases you will need to know as law students, lawyers, and paralegals. The list is not exhaustive; consult your law dictionary for terms you do not find. Included here are terms not ordinarily used in lay language, terms whose meanings differ from their lay meanings, and "law Latin" terms.


1. Action:


Shorthand for "cause of action"; for example, a court action to obtain relief, a judicial remedy to enforce or protect a right, or a proceeding by a plaintiff against a defendant to enforce an obligation of the defendant to the plaintiff.


2. Acts non facitreum, nisi means sit rear:


An act does not make one guilty. Unless he has a guilty mind. (For crime, there must be both act and evil intent.)

3. Adhesion contract:


A contract drafted by the stronger party, then presented for acceptance to the weaker party, who has no power to modify its terms.

4. Ad item:


(Latin: For the suit) A "guardian ad listen" is a guardian appointed to represent a person who is incapable of acting on his own behalf.

5. Advance sheets, advance pamphlets:


Paperback publications printed and distributed as soon as possible after a judicial decision, in order that the information be available before it appears in a bound volume. (Slip laws are similar publications of acts passed by a legislative body.)

6. Affirmative defense:


A defense which does more than deny the plain tiffs allegations; it also brings forth new allegations. Aforethought: Arrived at beforehand; a premeditated. Allegation: A statement that a party to a lawsuit intends to prove. Amicus curiae: (Latin: A friend of the court) One who interposes in a legal action.

7. Appellant:


The party who appeals to a higher court from the judgment against himself in a lower court, sometimes called "petitioner." appellee: The party against whom a case is appealed from a lower court to a higher court, sometimes called "respondent." assumpsit’s: A common law action to recover damages for the nonperformance of a contract.

8. Attractive nuisance:


A condition on one's premises that is dangerous to children and yet so alluring to them that they may enter.


9. Bad faith:


The opposite of "bona fide" (in good faith): motivated by ulterior motives or by furtive intent.

10. Beyond a reasonable doubt:


The proof required of the prosecutor in criminal proceedings.

11. Breach:


Violation of a duty; the breaking of an obligation. Burden of evidence; the duty of one party to produce evidence to meet or present a prima facie case.

12. Burden of proof:


The duty to establish in the trial the truth of a proposition or issue by the amount of evidence required.

13. Case:


A controversy to be decided in a court of justice. case law: The law set forth in the decisions of appellate courts, that is, in cases that have been decided.

14. Case in point:


A previously decided case that is similar in important respects to the one now being decided.

15. Case system:


Analysis of actual cases that have been decided, the method used in many law school courses to teach law students.

16. cause sine qua non:


(Latin: cause without which nothing,) The determining cause, without which a result would not have occurred. cause: An action or suit; sometimes used synonymously with "case." caveat: (Latin: Let him beware,) Used in phrases like "caveat emptor," (let the buyer beware).

17. Certiorari:


Literally, to be made certain? a writ of review or inquiry by an appellate court re-examining an action of an inferior tribunal or to enable the appellate court to obtain further information in a pending cause.

18. Change of venue:


The removal of a suit for trial from one county to another.

19. Charged with crime:


Accused of a crime, either formally or informally.

20. Chattels:


Movable property, in contrast to real estate.

21. Chose:


From Old French: a thing. An item of personal property, a chattel.

22. Civil action


An action to enforce a civil right, as distinguished from a criminal action.

23. Class action


An action brought on behalf of a class of persons by one or more nominal plaintiffs.

24. Clean hands doctrine


The principle by which the court of equity requires that one who comes to it for relief must not be guilty of wrongful conduct.

25. Clear and convincing evidence


A degree of proof higher than that of preponderance of the evidence and lower than that of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

26. Color


Mere semblance of a legal right.

27. Common law


Legal rules, principles, and usage that rest upon court decisions rather than upon statutes or other written declarations.

28. Condition precedent


A condition that must occur before something else comes into effect.

29. Contract


Williston) An agreement upon sufficient consideration to do or refrain from doing a particular lawful thing.

30. Conversion


A wrongful act of dominion over another's property.

31. Convict


(verb) To find a person guilty of the crime charged.

32. Court of last resort


The highest court to which a case may be taken, from which no appeal can be made.

33. Criterion


The test on which a judgment or a decision is based.

34. Damage


Harm resulting from illegal invasion of a legal right.

35. Damages


Compensation imposed by the law to one who has suffered harm due to another's wrongdoing.

36. Decision


The conclusion reached by a court in adjudication of a case, or the decision reached by arbitration; sometimes synonymous with judgment.

37. Declaratory judgment


A decision stating the rights and duties of the parties, but involving no relief as a result.

38. De facto


(Latin: from the fact) In fact or reality, as contrasted with de jure, by right or by law, defamation: Libel or slander.

39. Degree of care


A standard, testing conduct to decide whether the conduct is negligent.

40. Degree of proof


The amount of evidence required in action to establish the truth of an allegation.

41. de minimis non curatlex


(Latin; The law is not concerned with trifles.)

42. Demurrer


A statement that even if the facts as stated are true, their legal consequences do not require that the action proceed further.

43. Detriment


(in contract law) some forbearance on the part of one party, as consideration for the contract.

44. Devise


A testamentary gift of real estate.

45. Doctrine


A rule or principle of law developed by court decisions.

46. due care


The care that a person of ordinary prudence would take in similar circumstances.

47. Due process of law


A course of legal proceedings according to the rule of justice established to enforce and protect private rights.

48. Earnest money


A payment of part of the purchase price to bind the contract.

49. ejusdem generic


(Latin: of the same kind.)

50. Embezzlement


The fraudulent appropriation of property or money entrusted to one person by another.

51. Encumbrance


A hindrance or impediment that burdens or obstructs the use of land.

52. Entirety


The whole as distinguished from a part, as used to refer to the joint estate of spouses.

53. Equal protection


Generally refers to the guaranty under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that all persons should enjoy the same protection of the law.

54. Equity


A principle which provides justice when ordinary law may be inadequate.

55. Escheat


The reversion or forfeiture of property to the government because persons who have a legal claim to it are absent.

56. Establish


In evidence, to settle a disputed or doubtful fact.

57. E stop


(From Old French: to stop up.) To bar, preclude, prohibit.

58. Except


(verb) to object; to take exception to a court order or ruling.

59. Facial


Pertaining to the language on the face of a document, pleading, statute, or writ.

60. For cause


For legal cause, as in the challenge of a juror.

61. Four corners


The entire face of a document; thus, the construction of a document itself, as a whole.

62. Frivolous


So unmeritorious as to require no argument to convince the court of this fact.

63. Fungible goods


Goods of a kind in which all units are identical.

64. Fundamental error


In appellate practice, an error so material as to render a judgment void.

65. Garnish


To warn, summon, or notify.

66. Good cause


Substantial legal reason.

67. Good faith


Sincere motivation or behavior lacking fraud or deceit.

68. Guardian


One entrusted by law with the control and custody of another person or estate.

69. Guilty mind


Criminal intent (Latin: mensrea.) harmless error: In appellate practice, error committed during the trial below, but not prejudicial to the rights of the party assigning it, and because of which, therefore, the court will not reverse the judgment below.

70. Hostile possession


Possession of land under a claim of exclusive right. hypothetical fact situation: A fictional legal problem, postulated by law professors, in order to sharpen their students' analytical skills.

71. Id.


Abbreviation of "idem," (Latin: the same.)

72. i.e.


Abbreviation of "id est.," (Latin: that is.)

73. In absentia


(Latin: In [someone's] absence,)

74. In banco


(Latin: On the bench); that is, when all judges are sitting.

75. Inferior


With less legal power, subordinate.

76. Injure


Latin: in law,)

77. Liguria


(Latin: a wrong)] a violation of a legal right.

78. In personal


(Latin: involving the person,)

79. In rem


(Latin: involving the matter or thing,)

80. Inter alia


(Latin: among others,)

81. In toto


(Latin: in total)] altogether, wholly.

82. Ipso facto


(Latin: by that fact)

83. Lessee


One who has leased property from another; tenant.

84. lesser


One who has leased property to another; landlord.

85. lax talionis


The law of retaliation.

86. Malfeasance


Legal misconduct; an act that is legally wrong.

87. Material


(adjective): Important, of the essence.

88. Matter


Those facts that constitute the entire ground or a part of the ground for an action or a defense.

89. Misfeasance


The doing of a lawful act in an unlawful manner.

90. Moiety


A part of something. (From Old French: moiete; half,)

91. Moot question


(1) an academic question; (2) a question which has lost significance because it has already been decided, or for other reasons.

92. Mortgagee


One to whom a mortgage is made.

93. Mortgagor


One who takes out a mortgage on his property?

94. Natural person


A real person, in contrast to a corporation.

95. Negligence per se


(Latin: negligence in itself?] negligence as defined by the law.

96. Novo contendere


(Latin: I do not wish to contend.)

97. Nonfeasance


The failure to act, when action is legally required.

98. n.o.v.


Abbreviation of Latin: "non obstinate veredicto," notwithstanding the verdict

99. Notorious possession


Possession of real property openly.

100. Nudum pactum


(Latin: a bare pact)] thus a promise lacking consideration.

101. Nullity


Something that has no legal effect.

102. Parole


Oral, as contrasted to "in writing."

103. Patent ambiguity


Obvious upon ordinary inspection; contrasts with "latent ambiguity."

104. Per curiam


(Latin: by the court)] as a whole.

105. Person


Either an individual or an organization, e.g., a corporation.

106. Perspires:


(Latin: by class); distribution according to the share a deceased ancestor would have taken.

107. Plaintiff


The party bringing an action.

108. Precatory words


Words expressing desire rather than command.

109. Prejudicial


Detrimental to one party in a dispute.

110. Preponderance of evidence


The greater weight and value of the evidence adduced.

111. Presumption


An assumption about the existence of a fact; a presumption may be either rebuttable or irrefutable (conclusive).

112. Prima facie case


A cause of action sufficiently established to justify a favorable verdict if the other party to the action does not rebut the evidence.

113. Probable cause


Reasonable cause.

114. Proximate cause:


that event or occurrence which produces the injury, and without which the injury would not have occurred.

115. Punitive damages:


Damages beyond compensatory damages, imposed to punish the defendant for his act.

116. Quantum meruit


(Latin: As much as it is worth)] the amount deserved.

117. Question of fact


A question for the jury to decide, upon conflicting evidence.

118. Question of law


A question about the law affecting the case, for the judge to decide.

119. Recovery


The amount a claimant receives as a result of a judgment.

120. Remedy


The means of enforcing a legal right or redressing a legal injury.

121. Res


(Latin: thing)] matter.

122. Res ipsa loquitur


(Latin: The thing speaks for itself,)

123. Res judicata


(Latin: The thing having been adjudicated.) The earlier judgment thus bars a second action.

124. Respondeat superior


(Latin: The superior is responsible,) the doctrine that imposes liability upon an employer for the acts of his employees in the course of their employment.

125. Rule


A statement of law that will henceforth act as precedent; a principle established by authority.

126. Satisfaction


Performance of the terms of an agreement; discharge of an obligation.

127. Scienter


(Latin: knomngly.) Often means defendant's "guilty knowledge."

128. Seasonable


Within the agreed time or at the agreed time. If no time is stipulated, a "reasonable" time.

129. Seisin


Possession coupled with the right of possession.

130.Strict construction


Narrow or literal construction of language.

131. Sui generis


(Latin; of its own kind)-, thus the only one of its kind.

132. Tort


A wrong, for which a civil action is a remedy, outside of contract law.

133. Tortfeasor


One who commits a tort; a wrongdoer.


134. Vicarious liability

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Legal Terminology?

The specialized language used in legal writing makes it difficult to read.  In statutes, court decisions, and business contracts, the legal doctrine is often conveyed through technical terms known as "terms of art." Although these terms vary in origin and purpose, they are generally broken down into three categories: specialty terminology, foreign terminology, and archaic terminology.

The phrase "specialized terminology" refers to terms used in the legal profession.  Laws introduced some special terminology to convey meanings specific to the law. These terms include: affidavit (a written or printed statement made under oath); tort (a civil wrong without criminal penalties); the writ (a court order for a person to do or refrain from doing something); and litigation (a legal proceeding).  The legal community has adopted several everyday terms and given them a new meaning.  The words here are motion (a request to a judge for a decision on an issue related to the case), damages (money that a defendant pays a plaintiff if the plaintiff wins the case), and assume (an agreement to perform obligations under a contract or lease).

Legal terms from foreign languages are called foreign terminology.  The language of law most commonly adopted is Latin, followed by French.  Examples of foreign terms include: en banc (French, meaning "on the bench". All the judges of an appellate court sitting together to hear a case instead of the normal three judges); habeas corpus (Latin, meaning "you have the body." A judicial order ordering law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding and to justify the prisoner's continued imprisonment); and In-camera (In the judge's chamber, away from the jury and public). 

Legal writing tends to use archaic language to convey specific directions without excessive repetition. Basically, they are phrases that have been reduced to single words.  This archaic category of terminology includes words such as heretofore, thereupon, and whereabouts.  These terms were once common in the English language, but have since fallen out of use and are now only used in 'art terms.'

A legal document as a primary source can be effectively analyzed only if we understand the terminology used by the legal profession. If you would like to practice working with legal jargon, identify a few terms used in the most recognized legal document of the United States, the Constitution of the United States of America.

What Are Some Common Legal Terms?

You may not be familiar with some legal terms unless you work in the legal profession or watch legal dramas frequently on television. Various terms are used in legal offices and courtrooms, and not everyone understands them. The words may seem familiar, but their meanings may be completely different under the law. Knowing the basics and what they mean is helpful even if you rarely need one.

The following are 10 commonly used words and their definitions:
  1. Plaintiff – The person that initiates a lawsuit against someone else.
  2. Defendant – The person, company, etc., that a lawsuit is brought against.
  3. Deposition – A statement under oath, taken down in writing, to be used in court in place of the spoken testimony from a witness.
  4. Contingency Fee – Paid to an attorney when an attorney is successful in making a recovery on behalf of his/her client; attorney receives a percentage of the verdict or settlement amount.
  5. Discovery – Investigation before a lawsuit goes to a trial; parties gather facts and information about the other party to build their case; it can be written or oral.
  6. Motion – A request by one party for a judge’s ruling on an issue parties cannot agree on that is made orally or in writing at any point during a lawsuit.
  7. Medical Malpractice – Care given by a healthcare provider that is negligent or does not meet standards of care, which results in patient’s injury or death.
  8. Wrongful death – A death caused by the negligence of another person.
  9. Negligence – The failure to act with the degree of care that the law requires to protect other people and their interests, which often results in injuring others.
  10. Damages – The amount of money a client can recover in a lawsuit.

These terms are just a small sample of many you need to know about the legal field. Check out the site for more definitions

What Are The 10 Legal Terminologies?

The language of lawyers and lawsuits is unique. Unfortunately, lawyers often forget that the words they encounter every day could be unfamiliar to our clients and those involved in the legal system.

Below is a list of 10 key legal terms that you need to know:

Legal Terminology: General Terms

  1. Analogize: To take the facts, rationale, or argument of a written decision and explain how the argument relates to your case/issue.
  2. Citation: A reference to a legal precedent or authority (primary or secondary) such as a case, statute, or treatise. Case citation: The alphanumeric identifier provided enables researchers to locate written decisions. The format usually consists of a volume number, the abbreviated reporter name, and a page or paragraph number. (e.g. 268 N.E.2d 1247)
  3. Citators: A tool used in legal research to update legal authorities by listing their subsequent history and treatment. Also, provide additional research references to primary and secondary resources citing your original document.
  4. Civil Law: The body of law imposed by the state; the law of civil or private rights; a civil law system relies on codes that provide explicit rules of a situation. A judge's decision in a civil law system does not become binding or form a precedent. Many European countries are civil law countries.
  5. Constitution: A type of primary authority that is a set of principles that a country or state is governed by. Constitutions generally establish the branches of government, the scope of powers for each branch, and a set of guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties.
  6. Criminal Law: The body of law defining offenses against the community at large, regulating how suspects are investigated, charged and tried, and establishing punishment for convicted offenders.
  7. Court Rules: Rules that control the operation of the courts and the conduct of the litigants appearing before the court.
  8. Distinguishing an Authority: Taking the facts, rationale, or arguments of a written decision or other primary authority and showing the differences between that authority and your case, even if on the surface they seem similar.
  9. Federal Jurisdiction: A federal court's power to hear matters. Under this type of jurisdiction, federal courts may decide a question of civil and/or criminal federal law.
  10. Index: An alphabetical listing of items (topics or names) available in the resource along with an indication of where each item may be found within the work. This finding tool is available in both print and electronic resources.

Legal Terminology: Case Law

  1. Appeal: To seek review by a higher court. (e.g. appeal trial court decisions to the appropriate higher court; appeal appellate court decisions to the appropriate highest court.)
  2. Appellant: One who brings the appeal of the lower court decision (the loser in the lower court).
  3. Appellate Briefs: Written argument submitted to the appellate court in support of a position on appeal (not the same as a case brief).
  4. Appellee: The appeal is brought against and must respond to the appeal (the winner in the lower court). Also called a respondent.
  5. Case: Generally used in law to refer to the written decision of a court.
  6. Case Law: All reported decisions within a jurisdiction. May consist of common law decisions as well as judicial decisions interpreting statutes, regulations, constitutions, etc.
  7. Case Reporters: Court opinions that are gathered together and published in chronological order. The books containing these cases are called case reporters. Even though most cases are available online, they are still organized and cited according to the print reporter system. Cases are primary sources regardless of publication in an official or unofficial reporter, the case decision is the primary source. Case reporters can be official or unofficial.
  8. Citator: A tool used in legal research to update legal authorities by listing their subsequent history and treatment. With case law, legal citators indicate when a case has been cited by a later case and what effect the later citation had on the original case.  The three main citators are Shepard's on Lexis, KeyCite on Westlaw, and Bcite on Bloomberg Law.
  9. Common-Law: The body of judge-made law having no basis in statutes. NOTE: Case law that interprets a statute is NOT common law.
  10. Common-Law Tradition: The basis for the American legal system where courts create rules called common-law rules and those rules govern future cases in that particular area. For example, Tort cases are governed by common law rules.

Legal Terminology: Codes, Statutes & Administrative Law

1. Code: The subject arrangement of the laws or regulations of jurisdiction.
  • Annotated Code: A publication of all the laws of a jurisdiction organized by subject matter which contains research references that include summaries of cases or citations to secondary sources that discuss that particular law. Annotated codes only contain select case law interpreting the statute, not every case ever citing the statute.
  • Unannotated Code: A publication of all the laws of a jurisdiction organized by subject matter. No research references are included in unannotated codes.

2. Legislative History: The proceedings leading up to the enactment of a statute. This includes hearings, committee reports, and floor debates among other resources. The legislative history is recorded so that it can be used to interpret the statute at a later date. Legislative history records are available for federal statutes. Many states keep records of legislative history, but the extent of the record varies from state to state. The legislative history is considered a primary authority.

3. Regulation: In administrative law, a primary authority stems from the executive branch. It is a directive issued by a government agency that implements and/or carries out a governmental policy or program. The directive must be within the agency's statutory authority.

4. Session Laws: A body of statutes enacted by a legislature during a particular annual or biennial session; the books containing these statutes. Maintained in the public act or public law format.

5. Statute: A law passed by a legislative body. Often also called laws and codes.
  • Federal Statute: Written laws passed by the United States Congress. Statutes are the primary authority.
  • State Statute: Written laws passed by the state legislature. Statutes are the primary authority.

6. Statutes at Large: An official compilation of the acts and resolutions that become law from each session of the United States Congress. They are printed in chronological order.

7. Statutory Annotations: In statutory research, the term is used to refer to summaries of court decisions interpreting and applying statutes as well as summaries of secondary materials referencing the statutory section. These summaries appear in annotated statutory compilations, after the text of individual statutes. They are also referred to as research references.

The imposition of liability upon one person for the acts of another.

See following articles for more information:

published November 16, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
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