16 Words Every Attorney and Law Student Should Know

The law is an incredibly rich and nuanced topic. The words used in the field are often specialized, legalistic, and difficult to understand for non-attorneys. 

Even attorneys have a hard time keeping up with all of the new terms and phrases that enter into everyday use by judges and lawyers alike. So if you’re interested in learning more about this language, here are 20 essential legal terms every attorney should know:

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Law – YouTube
Key Takeaways
1. Legal Vocabulary: Developing a strong grasp of legal terminology is essential for attorneys and law students to effectively communicate within the legal field.
2. Precision in Communication: Precise usage of legal words ensures clear and accurate communication in legal documents, contracts, and arguments.
3. Essential Terms: Understanding fundamental terms such as “affidavit,” “bailiff,” “deposition,” and “litigation” is crucial for success in the legal profession.
4. Professionalism: Utilizing the correct legal terminology enhances professionalism and credibility in both writing and verbal communication.
5. Study and Practice: Regularly studying and practicing legal vocabulary helps attorneys and law students confidently navigate legal contexts.


A bailiff is a person who is responsible for keeping order in the courtroom. A bailiff may also be called a marshal or sheriff, depending on the jurisdiction. 

The primary function of a bailiff is to control and maintain decorum during court proceedings, particularly while they are taking place. Bailiffs work under the authority of judges, who assign them specific responsibilities in their courts. A bailiff’s duties may vary widely depending on his or her particular job description and jurisdiction; however, some common tasks include:

  • Summoning jurors before they enter the courtroom
  • Bringing witnesses into court when they are required to testify
  • Ensuring that all individuals involved in cases follow proper protocols

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Citations are the words used to refer to a source.

Cite is a verb in legal writing; it means “to refer to.” For example, if you wanted to cite the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (which governs ethics standards for attorneys), your citation might look like this: 

The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that an attorney must not make false statements about someone else’s character or reputation.”

Cite is also used as a legal term as well as an academic one. In law school and legal practice, citations are typically given using case names, statutes, regulations, or other official authorities for example: “In Smith v Jones (2016) 7 SCR 578 … .”

Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence. In criminal law, circumstantial evidence is a type of indirect proof that infers facts from other proven facts. It’s not as strong as direct evidence (facts that were observed directly), but it’s still useful in proving your case. 

For example, if someone breaks into your house and steals $100 worth of jewelry, this could be considered direct evidence: you saw the thief take the items. 

If you found some blood on their shoe when they left and later learn that they were injured in an accident at the same time as when they broke into your house.

However, this would be circumstantial evidence: you can’t prove that their blood was found on their shoes because it wouldn’t match exactly with their DNA profile (and it wouldn’t even necessarily match), but those two pieces together make for a pretty strong argument against them being innocent!

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Compel is a verb, which means to force someone to do something against his or her will. In the context of the law, this can be anything from physical force (i.e., coercing someone into testifying) to emotional manipulation (i.e., intimidating someone into testifying).

Compel has a very particular meaning in legal terms; it means that you have been told by the court that you must do something, such as testify at a hearing or provide documents during discovery. 

It may also mean that if you don’t do what has been ordered by the court, there will be consequences such as being held in contempt of court or having your license suspended because you failed to comply with an order from an administrative agency like DMV



The act of finding a person guilty in a court of law. For example: “The defendant was convicted of the crime.”

Being found guilty by a legal official due to being tried by the court and found guilty based on evidence or testimony presented. For example: “The defendant was convicted for murder.”

To be found guilty as charged, which may result in incarceration or probation depending upon the type and severity of the crime committed. For example: “If convicted of murder, he could be sentenced up to 25 years in prison.”


In the legal context, a defendant is a person against whom a lawsuit, criminal prosecution, or injunction is brought.

This person can be an individual or corporation: if you were involved in an accident and you think the other driver was at fault, then he/she would be your defendant. If you were sued by someone who claims that his property has been damaged by something done by your company (for example), then your company would be sued as a defendant in that case. 

A criminal prosecution results when a government brings charges against someone accused of committing a crime; here again, there may be multiple parties named as defendants depending on whether everyone involved in committing the crime faces charges.[1]

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Evidence is the information that is presented to the court to prove the facts of a case. This can be testimony from witnesses, documents, and other physical objects. 

Evidence is often presented during a trial, but it can also be introduced before or after a trial takes place. A jury decides how much weight to give each piece of evidence when making its decision about who wins in court.


A forfeit is a loss of rights, either by default or by stipulation. For example, a party in litigation may agree to forfeit their right to appeal if they are unsuccessful at trial. In this way, forfeiting something is like losing something. 

It’s not the same as giving up something voluntarily (“I forfeit my right to live in this house”) but rather losing it due to some other event (“the court has ordered you to forfeit your interest in the property”).

Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus is a legal process that can be used to challenge the lawfulness of a person’s detention. If you were arrested and held in prison, a writ of habeas corpus would allow you to challenge the legal basis for your arrest or imprisonment.

In addition, it also acts as a court order requiring an officer or prison official to bring the prisoner before the court for adjudication; if this is refused, the officer can be held in contempt (or even imprisoned himself)


An indictment is a formal accusation of wrongdoing by the government. It’s the first step in the criminal justice process, and it means that a grand jury has found enough evidence that there is probable cause to believe someone is guilty of committing a crime.

If you’ve watched any television show or movie related to law enforcement, then you’ve probably heard someone mention an indictment before. That’s because indictments are filed with criminal courts, usually by prosecutors who work for state or federal governments. 

An indictment is just a written document with charges against someone; no one needs to be arrested as part of this step it just means that there’s been enough evidence presented for charges to be filed at all. 

Indictments can be obtained through what are called “grand juries,” which are groups of people who meet together (often behind closed doors) and decide whether or not there is probable cause for an individual to face trial based on information presented by prosecutors over time (which may include witness testimony).


The first step to learning how to speak like a lawyer is understanding what jargon is. Jargon is a specialized language used in a particular field, such as law, medicine, and politics. It’s used as a shorthand so that people who work in those fields don’t need to explain themselves every time they talk about their jobs or interests.

Jargon is also used by companies, businesses, and organizations to help employees feel like they belong: by using jargon together at work you’re showing that you’re part of the same team. Plus, it makes things sound more official and important than if everyone was saying “law” instead of “legalese.”


Whether you’re an attorney or just starting law school, it’s important to understand the difference between “liable,” and “responsible.” Liability is a legal concept that holds parties responsible for their actions. For example: If your client runs over someone with his car while you were driving, you may be liable for any injuries caused by your negligence. 

Not all liability is bad though; sometimes it can protect someone from harm at the hands of others. Consider this hypothetical: If John Doe knocks over Jane Roe with his car and injures her leg, she could sue him for damages (and win). 

However, if it were proven that Jane Roe was drunk when she fell into traffic (or even worse stepped directly into John Doe’s path), then he would not be held liable because he did not cause her injury she did!

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Malpractice is a legal term that refers to lawsuits against professionals for not acting appropriately. In the law world, this includes doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who have committed malpractice or been accused of committing malpractice.

The word “malpractice” comes from the Latin meaning “bad practice.” If you’ve ever experienced any sort of injury due to another person’s negligence or bad judgment, then you may have grounds for filing a lawsuit against them.

Nolo Contendere (No Contest)

Nolo contendere (no contest) is a Latin phrase meaning “I will not contest it.” It’s used in the US legal system instead of a guilty plea and allows the defendant to avoid admitting guilt while still being convicted.


Objections are made by attorneys during a trial or hearing to indicate that they believe the evidence presented is improper or irrelevant. Objections can also be made when an attorney believes the opposing attorney is misstating the law. The judge will decide whether to sustain (uphold) or overrule (reject) the objection depending on whether it has merit.

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Perjury is the act of giving false testimony under oath. Perjury is a criminal offense and can lead to serious consequences, including imprisonment.

If you are ever asked to give testimony in court and are unsure about the facts surrounding your case, it is always best to consult with an attorney before testifying. Some states may have laws that govern what attorneys must do when they learn their client has committed perjury.


By learning these words and using them in your everyday life, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively with other people. You’ll also be able to avoid sounding like a total idiot when discussing legal matters!

Further Reading

Here are some additional resources for enhancing your legal vocabulary and understanding:

Enjuris Law Student Glossary Short Description: Explore a comprehensive glossary tailored for law students, helping you grasp essential legal terminology.

LawTutors: Words You Should Know Before Law School Short Description: Prepare for law school with a list of key legal terms and concepts that will give you a head start in your studies.

EnglishClub: Legal Vocabulary Short Description: Brush up on your legal vocabulary through this collection of 20 essential terms for law-related discussions.


What is the importance of legal vocabulary for aspiring lawyers?

Legal vocabulary is crucial for aspiring lawyers as it forms the foundation of effective communication in the legal field. Accurate understanding and usage of legal terms are essential for drafting contracts, arguing cases, and producing well-researched documents.

How can I expand my legal vocabulary before entering law school?

Expanding your legal vocabulary before law school can be accomplished by studying resources such as glossaries, legal dictionaries, and online platforms that focus on legal terminology. Engaging with legal literature and participating in legal discussions can also help improve your vocabulary.

Are there specific legal terms that every law student should know?

Yes, there are several foundational legal terms that every law student should familiarize themselves with. These include terms related to contract law, torts, property law, criminal law, and constitutional law, among others.

Where can I find a comprehensive list of legal terms for law students?

You can find a comprehensive list of legal terms tailored for law students on websites dedicated to legal education, law tutor services, and law-related vocabulary resources.

How does a strong legal vocabulary contribute to legal writing skills?

A strong legal vocabulary enhances legal writing skills by enabling precise and clear expression of legal concepts. When writing legal documents, such as briefs, contracts, and memoranda, the use of accurate legal terms adds credibility and professionalism to your work.