Common Legal Words/Phrases and What They Mean
  • 5-minute read
  • 2nd December 2022

Common Legal Words/Phrases and What They Mean

Every profession or group has its own language, from taxi drivers to teenagers, but we generally associate lawyers with confusing terms and fancy expressions. Understanding these can help you understand courtroom dramas and, more importantly, make sure you use the right terms in your documents, where clarity is key, and mistakes can be expensive.

In a previous article, we looked at five commonly misunderstood legal terms; now, let’s follow the legal process to look at some common words and phrases and what they mean.

1. Parties, Third Parties, and Ex Parte

Not to be confused with fun times, parties is the term used for the people directly involved in a legal case, whether that’s a private dispute, a contract, or a criminal case. The singular is, as may be guessed, party and comes from Latin and French verbs that mean “to divide,” so we can think of them as divided on a particular issue. The same would go for political parties.

Most legal cases and contracts have two sides, even if there are several people on one or both sides. Those who are not directly involved but may be affected by a transaction or case are called third parties.

Knowing what these words mean can help unscramble those legal turns of phrase so beloved by the Marx Brothers: “the party of the first part…”

One party can do certain things in a case without involving or even giving notice to the other; these are said to be done ex parte. This is one of several Latin terms still used in legal writing and means “on or from one side.”

2. Litigation, Lawsuit, and Sue

When there’s a dispute between parties, the process of formally resolving it through the courts is called litigation, which comes from the Latin lītigāre, which means “to carry on a lawsuit.”

The parties to litigation become collectively known as litigants.

Litigation can refer to any type of legal action handled through the courts, from private disputes to criminal trials, but some terms associated with it are commonly confused, like complaint and lawsuit.

The suit part of lawsuit doesn’t refer to what the lawyers wear, however smart the protagonists in Suits may appear, but follows a well-trodden Latin–French route, coming from sequere and suivre, meaning “to follow.” If you remember that, it becomes easy to see that a lawsuit is the process that follows a complaint.

The suit part of lawsuit does not refer to what the lawyers wear, no matter how smart the characters in Suits appear to be, but rather follows a well-trodden Latin–French route, coming from sequere and suivre, meaning “to follow.” If you remember that, it becomes clear that a lawsuit is the process that follows a complaint.

The term sue (as in “Do that, and I’ll sue!”) comes from the suit part of lawsuit and describes the action of filing a lawsuit. Imagine not wanting to let someone get away with a perceived wrong and pursuing them for it.

3. Complaint, Claim, and Counterclaim

A complaint is a formal document that explains why the court is involved. As the name suggests, it sets out what the complaint is and tells the court what the party making the complaint wants as a result of the complaint; this is the claim.

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The party receiving a complaint may believe they’re not only not at fault but also the one making the claim. Adding the prefix counter-, meaning “opposing” or “retaliatory,” we get a counterclaim for this part of the lawsuit.

4. Plaintiff and Defendant

Once a lawsuit is filed, the parties (or litigants) take on new titles: plaintiff and defendant.

Understanding that the document that starts a lawsuit is called a complaint helps to understand why the party who starts the proceeding is called the plaintiff.

Similarly, the party the lawsuit is brought against, who must defend it if they believe they’re not at fault, is called the defendant. The same term is used for the person accused in a criminal trial.

5. Lawyer, Counsel, and Attorney

The terms for those who provide legal advice and assistance are often used interchangeably, especially in popular culture, but there are some differences that may be important.

Lawyer is a more general term because it can be used to describe anyone with a law degree. So, it includes people who give advice about the law, people who represent the parties in court, and even the judge.

Counsel, another Latin term (consulere, meaning “to consult”), can refer to both the person giving legal advice or representing one of the parties in court and the advice they give. You can therefore seek legal counsel (advice) and be advised or represented by a counsel (a lawyer).

An attorney-at-law, usually shortened to attorney, more specifically refers to a lawyer qualified to represent others in court. They must have passed the bar exam (the bar being the professional association, not to be confused with mixology). All attorneys-at-law must be lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys-at-law. Think of the extra words as denoting extra qualifications.

Of course, not everyone can afford to hire a lawyer, and some may prefer not to. Those who represent themselves and who are not legally qualified are said to be doing so pro se. This is a direct use of Latin, meaning “for yourself.”

If you’re dealing with any aspect of legal proceedings, this primer on common legal terms and phrases should help you decode and correctly use them.

Whatever your understanding of the terminology, it’s important to proofread what you’ve written to ensure it says what you think it does. Mistakes, however small, in this arena can be costly. If you’d like more help with your legal terminology, we have a team of expert proofreaders available 24/7. You can upload a free trial document to get started.

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