Lawyers are a pillar of society in the United States — as American as apple pie. Courtroom drama features heavily on scripted TV shows and in the news, and Americans are known for being quite litigious, especially when compared to other countries. According to the American Bar Association, there are approximately 1.3 million active attorneys in the U.S. And when you have that many lawyers per capita, you also get a whole lot of legal jargon.
A significant chunk of the words and phrases that make up modern-day legalese come from Latin. That’s because of the Roman Empire’s role in introducing the judicial system, and Latin’s place as the de facto language of law and governance across Europe, and eventually in the U.S. as well. American law is also very dependent on the concept of legal precedent, so many decisions are based in history, which helps the use of ancient language persist.
Here’s a guide to some of the most common, as well as some of the strangest, legal jargon you might hear in a law office or courtroom. Whether you have your own case to prepare, or just want to see if Law & Order is actually accurate, this should help you out.
A Brief Guide To Legal Jargon
Acquittal — a certification of a person’s innocence, freeing them from the charges of a crime. This can come from a jury’s “not guilty” verdict or a judge’s decision.
Affidavit — a written statement made under oath.
Arbitration — a private process for resolving disputes outside of the courts. A neutral third party hears the evidence of the case and makes a decision.
Bar — this refers to the legal profession as an institution. A bar association is a group of attorneys. In the United States, you have to be admitted to the bar to practice law, but only certain states mandate that lawyers be members of local bar associations.
Bench — the area of the courtroom occupied by the judge or judges.
Contempt of Court — disregard for or failure to obey the rules and authority of the court. Disrespecting a judge or disobeying a court’s orders are both grounds to be held in contempt.
Discovery — the process by which one party can learn what evidence or facts the other party has that could affect the outcome of the case.
Ex Parte — Latin for “from a side,” ex parte is when one party in a case speaks with a judge without the presence of the other party. It’s generally considered improper except in special cases, like when domestic abuse victims request restraining orders.
Gag Order — a court order restricting parties from commenting on a case publicly or with an unauthorized third party.
Good Faith — the assumption that all parties will be honest, fair and sincere in their dealings.
Habeas Corpus — meaning “you have the body” in Latin, this is usually used as a judicial order to force law enforcement to produce a person they’re detaining and to justify that person’s imprisonment.
Hung Jury — a jury unable to reach a consensus or verdict.
Inculpatory Evidence — evidence that establishes the guilt of the defendant. Conversely, exculpatory evidence is evidence that establishes the innocence of the defendant.
Natural Person — simply means an individual, not a corporate entity. (Remember, in the United States corporations are technically people.)
Pro Bono — from the Latin phrase pro bono publico (“for the public good”), these are legal services provided by a lawyer who isn’t paid for those services, often for low-income clients or nonprofit organizations.
Pro Se — meaning “for oneself” in Latin, this is when a litigant represents themselves in court, rather than being represented by an attorney.
Recess — a break in a trial or court proceeding.
Subpoena — from the Latin phrase sub poena (“under penalty”), this is a notice legally requiring a person to appear in court and testify as a witness.
Tort — a negligent or intentional injury or wrongful act against a person or their property, allowing for a civil case to be brought.
Wobbler — a crime that can be punished as either a misdemeanor (a crime with a less severe sentence, usually less than one year in prison) or a felony (a crime with a more severe sentence, usually more than one year in prison).