If you have occasion to speak with a lawyer, you may find yourself on the unfortunate receiving end of an overly-long sentence that is filled with incomprehensible legal terms or phrases, jargon, terms of art, or Latin curse words. As a lawyer myself, I can attest to the fact that I don’t intend to confuse a client with my words, especially when I’m trying to explain a legal concept, but it happens. Lawyers live and die by some of these legal terms, and I tend to use them every single day without always thinking about whether my wife always has that glazed and distant expression on her face or if it’s just when I’m telling her about my day.
With that in mind, I’ve prepared a list and brief explanation of some of the most common legal terms that you, as a client, are likely to hear. However, the best legal advice I’ve ever given a client is, “If I ever explicate a common law principle that renders you profoundly flummoxed or discombobulated, immediately inquire as to the proper connotation of such a fundamental legal regulation, and I will endeavor to expound rather more unpretentiously so as to ensure full and complete comprehension on your part.”
“What?” the client asked in confusion.
“Exactly,” I answered. “That’ll be $5,000.”
Helpful Legal Terms and Definitions
For your most basic lawsuit, here are a few common legal terms that are helpful to understand:
The person or business that files the lawsuit.
The person or business being sued.
The complaint is the document that the plaintiff files with the court that starts the lawsuit. It lays out the alleged facts of the case and all claims that the lawsuit is based on.
The answer is the written response to the complaint that the defendant must file with the court. It addresses each allegation made in the complaint by either admitting the allegation or denying it. The defendant also has the opportunity to briefly set forth its defenses in the case.
Once the complaint has been filed and the defendant has answer, then the parties move to the discovery phase of the trial. This phase includes written discovery, such as interrogatories and requests for production (explained below), as well as depositions of witnesses, the plaintiff, or the defendant.
Interrogatories are written questions. If you bring a lawsuit against someone else, you will the opportunity to prepare these written questions for the opposing party to answer. You will likely also have to answer their written questions. Your attorney will draft the answers, based on your responses.
Requests for Production of Documents
During a lawsuit, lots of documents will be handed back and forth between the lawyers, pursuant to what are called Requests for Production of Documents. You have the opportunity to ask for all sorts of relevant documents from the opposing party, and they get to do the same to you. The Requests can cover emails, text messages, phone records, business documents, contracts, medical records, and a million different types of information. Essentially, anything written down, either physically or electronically, can be requested.
Depositions are question and answer sessions where everything you say is recorded and typed up into a word-for-word transcript of the deposition. If you are being deposed (i.e., questioned), you will arrive at a conference on the appointed time, be placed under oath (“I solemnly swear to tell truth,” etc.), and the attorney for the other party will ask you a long series of questions. You are required to answer these questions, and anything you say is regarded as sworn testimony, just as if you were in a courtroom in front of a judge and jury. Your attorney will attend with you and can make some objections, but mostly, he or she just listens and takes notes.
Subpoenas are legal documents, issued by the court, that require people or entities who are not involved in the lawsuit to produce documents or to appear at a deposition or trial.
If a party (plaintiff or defendant) ever wants the judge to take any action, the party must make a motion. A motion is a short, written request that the judge DO something, such as order the opposing party to take some action or refrain from taking an action. Most of the time, when a party files a motion with the judge, the party also files a memorandum of law.
Memorandum of Law (Memo for short)
A memo is a longer document that contains the party’s legal arguments. For example, if your motion asks the court to make the opposing party produce certain documents that the opposing party is withholding, then your memo explains the facts leading up to the motion, as well as what the law says to support your arguments. The memo is typically provided to the judge before the hearing.
A hearing is a formal meeting with the judge and the opposing party’s lawyer. The meeting is recorded and can be transcribed, just like a deposition or trial. The judge will hear oral arguments from both plaintiff and defendant, which gives the judge an opportunity to ask questions about the case and the motion in more detail. The judge will either grant or deny the motion.
“But,” You Say Desperately, “Now He’s Speaking LATIN!”
Ultimately, if all else fails and you still don’t know what the heck your lawyer is talking about, then your only option is to grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and ask your lawyer to explain it again, but this time you say, with heartfelt compassion in your voice, “Do it like you’re talking with a human being.” That should do the trick.