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A Glossary of Legal Jargon You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask About


People often say that attending law school and familiarizing yourself with legal thinking is like learning a new language. One aspect of the process that makes it so unfamiliar is the prevalence of unfamiliar terms and phrases. In the interest of avoiding any potential embarrassment for incoming law students, this post is going to provide a glossary of common terms in the legal profession.

Appellate Court: An appellate court reviews decisions of a trial court. A trial court is the lowest level of the court system, and its decisions can be appealed to an appellate court. Varying levels of deference are given to the determinations of the trial court depending on the issue involved.

Billable Hour: At large corporate law firms, lawyers are billed out per hour. Thus, lawyers are responsible for tracking their time in small increments, usually 6 minutes or so. The overall number of an attorney’s billable hours is generally used as one basis for determining job performance and bonus amounts.

Class Action: A class action lawsuit is brought on behalf of a large “class” of plaintiffs. In a simple lawsuit, one plaintiff sues one defendant and a finding against the defendant entitles the individual plaintiff to relief. In a class action, a small number of “named plaintiffs” bring a lawsuit on behalf of numerous similarly situated defendants. So, for example, if I was harmed because my car engine exploded, I could seek to bring a lawsuit against the manufacturer on behalf of every other individual whose engine exploded as a result of the same defect.

Damages: Damages are, simply, the harm that occurred to a party as a result of a wrongful action. For example, if you punch me in the face, I can sue you for battery and assert damages for my medical expenses and my pain and suffering.

Document Review: The much maligned document review is the process of checking documents to ensure that they aren’t covered by attorney-client, or some other, privilege and to ensure their relevance to a lawsuit. In large cases, thousands, if not millions, of documents are exchanged, and it generally falls on the lowest-level attorneys to sort through the documents beforehand to ensure that there is no problem with turning them over.

In-House: An in-house attorney works for a company rather than a law firm. In-house jobs are desirable positions for lawyers hoping to leave behind the intense hours of a law firm.

Injunction: An injunction is a court order for a party to stop doing something. For example, if you’re dumping all your trash on my property, I could seek a court order to prevent you from continuing in that activity.

Partner: Generally speaking, a partner is an individual in the upper ranks at a law firm. A partner can either be an “equity partner” — meaning they own a share of the firm — or a “non-equity partner.”

Pro Bono: Pro bono work is legal work performed for free to benefit the public. Ethically, lawyers are encouraged to perform pro bono work every year. Most large law firms provide opportunities for their associates to do pro bono work.

Public Interest: Public interest work, in contrast to working in the private sector for a law firm for profit, is work on behalf of government organizations, public interest organizations, or pro bono work for a private firm. If you want to go to law school to “change the world,” you probably want to work in public interest.

Tort: A tort is a civil (not criminal) action that does not involve a breach of contract. Thus, unless you’re seeking to enforce the terms of a contract, you’re suing in tort, whether it is for personal injury, constitutional rights deprivation, or something else.

And now, a few bonus terms that you should know for law school itself.

1L (2L and 3L): 1L refers to the first year of law school, and so on with 2L and 3L.

Gunner: A gunner is basically the law school equivalent of a teacher’s pet. It is the kind of person who raises their hand after the professor says “I’ll let you out a few minutes early, unless there are any questions.” Don’t be that type of person.

Law Review: Law review is a school’s most prestigious academic journal, in which works of legal scholarship by students and professors are published. For budding litigators, it is probably the greatest feather that one can put in their cap.

With that basic primer, you’re well on your way to a grammar-school level understanding of the legal language. Good luck!

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