Liking Latin and Lawyers

Melissa H. at Paralegalese posts today about lawyers being too intelligent to be liked in “Nobody Likes a Know-It-All.” Meanwhile, Vicki Voison, The Paralegal Mentor, has an ode to the study of Latin and a compilation of many of the Latin terms and phrases that form a good part of the legal lexicon. Both are worth the read and, I contend, the two are likely connected.

I agree with Vicki on the benefits of the study of Latin for those considering the legal profession both because of the Latin contain in law and because the rigors of analysis required for the study of Latin is also useful for the study of law. My own exposure to the language began as an altar boy and continued through the conquest of Gaul in high school. However, while it is essential that both lawyers and paralegals know and understand the many Latin legal terms, use of those terms when speaking with clients is likely to be a mistake. As Melissa says,

But those attorneys (and anyone else, for that matter) who have a deep desire to share their intellectual prowess with others for no reason other than to prove how smart they are probably need to work on toning it down a bit.

I especially encourage paralegals to drop Latin (an other legal jargon) when speaking to clients. Sure, the use of such phrases between the paralegal and attorney act as good shorthand, allowing quick and effective coverage of complex topics. But the client is quickly lost when slogging through a swamp of legal jargon and Latin phrases. This is one of many barriers to client understanding and full participation on the legal team. If you must use a Latin legal phrase, remember that it has an English translation that might actually be understood by a client, making client management easier. The paralegal can, and should, use the English translation or explain the Latin phrase when speaking to the client, acting literally as a interpreter between the attorney and the client. Melissa puts the point well:

Knowledge and education are wonderful things when they serve clients’ needs, and therefore the firm’s needs. But empathy, understanding, and the ability to communicate on the client’s level are also necessary parts of meeting these goals.

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  • You make an excellent point about dropping the Latin when speaking with clients but I have to tell you that in my 20+ years working as a paralegal I’ve never heard anyone actually using Latin in conversation unless they’re saying something like ‘vice versa’ that everyone understands. Never anything like ‘Mr. Jones, nunc pro tunc.’ It’s used in pleadings and case law but in conversations with clients? Never.

  • R. E. Mongue says:

    I’ve never heard nunc pro tonc either, Vicki. In fact, I don’t recall seeing that one in writing often! However, I have heard clients told “Tomorrow we voir dire the jury,” and that their attorney would be “admitted pro hoc vice.” For awhile I kept a running list. Others I’ve heard or seen in written correspondence to clients without explanation are respondeat superior, quantum meriut, res ipsa, in rem, ad litem, corpus delecti, de jure, forum non convenviens, mens rea, in situ, per stirpesand ultra vires. One even ventured outside of Latin to French with cy pres. This one was somewhat humorous because I got the distinct impression that the attorney using the phrase did not really understand what it meant!

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