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Legalese: A 1Ls Worst and Most Boring Nightmare

Day one law school can be pretty overwhelming, to put it lightly. It harkens back to first day of university, even high school, where everyone is scrambling to get to their classes and make acquaintances out of fear of being seen by their peers as confused. Every one of your peers is a victim of this in some sense. At some point, all of us were.

Another feeling often suffered (by me at least) was that feeling you get when everyone is laughing at a joke you don’t quite get. A lot of this had to do with the so called “legalese” (law jargon) and the three million acronyms and Latin words that accompany this niche speak muttered by upper years and professors alike. Don’t worry; this language will be understood in due time, so it’s best not to worry about it until you have your foundations down (I don’t just mean the course).

If you have a legal background, in either your previous career or prior education, great! If not, don’t fret. Coming from a sciences background myself, I can tell you that there were many terms and, seemingly, common phrases I didn’t quite grasp appropriately back when I first started. It seems like the swaths of political science students had a bedrock made up of fringe “legalese” they could draw upon in times of need. To me, this flew mostly over my head.

It did get better, after some time. Part of what I enjoyed about 1L is that, while everyone comes in with different perspectives and backgrounds, part way through the middle of the first semester the entire attitude changes and you find yourself in an entirely different milieu than what you started with. 1L is the ultimate playing field leveler. Half way through the semester most people seem to grasp that everyone feels the same way (one way or another) as each other and everyone is here because they deserve it.

Everyone is also, at least in some way, confused. By the end of your term, you will still be confused. By the end of the year, you may be even more confused (I certainly was). The hard part is just remembering that not everyone knows everything about every field of law. This will become a comforting thought. You see, there are too many acronyms and tests and case names and jargon to be able to remember them all. Your professors know this, as do your future colleagues. That is exactly why you will likely never encounter someone who does, in fact, know all of this jargon.

This doesn’t mean you should actively try to avoid learning as many of these shorthands and terms as possible. It is important to improve your “legalese,” if for no other reason than to annoy your friends in other disciplines (a very valuable asset if you find long term friendships laborious). I advise you not to be sad when you don’t know something you think you should. Even if you recognize it, but just can’t quite remember, don’t beat yourself up about it. Focus on what you’re learning and the jargon will come. It’s better to know your stuff than to sound like you know your stuff when caught off guard (trust me: I had Yahya; you will be caught off guard).

As long as I’m mentioning things I generally felt stupid about for not knowing in first year I might as well mention this: firm names. No one expects you to have heard of every firm in Canada. No one expects you to know the specialization of every firm. When coming around the time to apply for jobs it might be good to know some quick facts about the firm(s) you would like to work for, but don’t spend all your free time (of which there is little) memorizing cue cards packed with firm knowledge unless it makes sense to do so (i.e. OCIs, career day, etc.). Instead, try and do some readings and relax.

I’d like you to think about how many of the following terms and names you recognize and understand at this moment: demurrer, depose, compensatory damages, the rule against perpetuities, mens rea, actus reus, stare decisis, bona fide, tortious, misfeasance, natural law, obiter dictum, ratio decidendi, rule nisi, trover, retinue, writs, action on the case, acquittal, bailment, lien, agency, promissory estoppel, subrogation, specific performance, injunction, and Lord Denning.

Now what do these things all have in common you ask? Well, you probably won’t know all of them by the end of first year. What else? They will likely all be taught to you by the end of first year. One more? You will not need to know all of them for your career as a lawyer. In short, don’t worry. It will all come with time.