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Crash Course in Legalese 

Posted in News on May 13, 2018

The law is a highly technical profession. We often use terms that may be confusing to someone who doesn’t spend regular hours in a law office or a courtroom. We know this can be frustrating, especially when you’re directly involved with a case. At the Law Offices of Howard Kitay, we always try to use simplified terms and avoid jargon when speaking to our clients about our cases.

On the other hand, it’s always nice to know what some of these “legalese” terms means, should you ever hear them. That’s why we’ve developed this crash course on the subject:

Where You Might Find Legalese

You can find legalese anywhere, but most often they’ll appear in the following documents:

  • A Judge’s decisions. Some writing is more approachable than others, but judges must make conclusions based on evidence and applicable laws. This inevitably leads to legalese.
  • Formal letters. Your lawyer might use technical legal language when writing a complaint letter to a party, such as a notice of complaint (which is an essential part of filing suits against municipal entities, for example).
  • Any formal court document. Old decisions, petitions, divorce decrees, and anything officially issued by a court system often contains hard-to decipher or antiquated terminology.

Examples of Legalese

One of the most common examples of legalese is overuse of Latin. Lawyers are infamous for using Latin terminology in briefs and other legal documents. Here are some of the most common:

  • Prima facie: literally translates to “on the face of it,” but refers to whether someone can make a case against another party.
  • Nunc pro tunc. This means “now for then” and applies when an attorney needs a court to fix an earlier court case.
  • Mutatis mutandis. Reserved for contracts, this means “with the necessary changes.”
  • Consensus ad idem. This translates to “meeting of the minds” and most frequently comes into play in contract law.
  • Bona fide. You’ve likely heard this term before, which translates to “in good faith.” It applies to insurance companies, especially as it pertains to processing claims. Generally, your lawyer will just use the term “good faith.”

Unnecessary Clauses

One of the things that make legal writing so frustrating to read is not only the jargon itself, but the way lawyers present the information. Especially confusing is the addition of unnecessary clauses like “provided that,” or “in as much as.” This makes legal documents unreadable, and some of this is intentional. It’s easier to slip things into contracts or settlement offers when hidden by fluffy or otherwise confusing language.

The Problem with Legalese

There are a few problems with using legal jargon:

  • Clients cannot understand what’s going on. Again, some of this might be by design. Using legalese prevents clients from effectively understanding their rights and responsibilities under the law.
  • It can stall negotiations. Lawyers must-read documents like settlement offers very carefully to make sure that they accurately represent their client’s right to fair compensation. Often, these contracts contain terms that necessitate more negotiating.
  • It’s nonsensical. Most legalese serves no real purpose. Most modern writing involves crisp, concise sentences. We try to convey ideas using as little “fluff” as possible. Legal writing is still stuck somewhere in the 18th century, when “heretofore,” “whereas” and “hereinafter” were commonplace. Legal jargon does not add to the point of the document, so it’s time for it to go for good.

While the law may be a highly technical profession, the majority of legalese is not necessary to convey a point. While knowing the basics of legalese can be helpful, the best thing we can do is eliminate all unnecessary wording from the legal documentation for good.



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