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I recently finished a book in which an entire chapter was narrated by a fictional attorney, Xosé Lendoiro. Nearly every sentence was interrupted by incomprehensible Latin phrases, such as unde habeas quaerit nemo, sed oportet habere or vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile. Unable to understand anything, the chapter flew by.
Law students are surely used to reading opinions laced with this dead tongue. My personal favorite was cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad infernos. The truly indoctrinated will run to consult Black's when stumbling upon any similarly italicized phrases, or other mysterious looking words. After reading countless opinions, much to my embarrassment, I have come to keep an informal list of recondite words in my head that continues to grow.
Bailiwick, meaning within the scope of something; judges will often say that something is not within their bailiwick when they are unwilling to make a rule of law on a particular aspect of a case. It is similar in meaning to ambit, another word one can casually toss around in conversation to impress eavesdroppers. A fact is not dispositive when it is not conclusive. This seems to be prevalent in torts, a field in which no fact ever seems to be dispositive and everything seems to be based on an unquantifiable reasonableness or foreseeability standard. Other words I grew weary of seeing include inapposite, adduce, aegis, bootstrap, cavil, and militate. I sometimes shudder when I see myself typing these. Sine qua non, amicus curiae, (plural: amici curiae), and certiorari are some other common Latin phrases that pepper first-year casebooks. I recall professors of mine invoking hoi polloi, a Gordian knot, the sword of Damocles, and Cassandra as if we were all classics majors in undergrad.
Those in the legal profession love to use its patois. Judges, lawyers, and professors believe, not without reason, that one's facility with the English language is a proxy for their knowledge of the law. Certainly at one extreme, a criminal lawyer who does not know habeas corpus or a corporate lawyer who does not know what a CDO or a LBO is may not be fit to practice. There are words that attorneys need to know; however, the usage of bailiwick or aegis is probably not essential for a successful legal career. Words are no substitute for skills. Some legal writing experts even go so far as to counsel against using abstruse words in sesquipedalian memos for fear of making the reader feel dumb. Then there are the judges who write in such a way that require the reader to use a dictionary. I tend to be somewhere in the middle. Combining a strong vocabulary with a strong legal foundation will surely impress that partner who majored in English, or the scrabulous-playing judge who starts her opinion with a passage from her favorite poet.
As an aside, I have started doing a lot of reading for pleasure, and have already finished a few books this semester. In agreeing to write on behalf of the law school, I have forced myself to avoid including any information that could lead to being sucked involuntarily into a meaningless debate where people I have never met use their anonymous online personae to argue over what I have said. I will not be mentioning politicians, schools, businesses, magazines, other blogs, or generally any proper nouns that might come up in an internet search. As a result, if anyone would like to know more about the quixotic novel I awkwardly referenced without naming the title or author, you will have to ask me personally, and I will gladly share.