We get it. Nobody speaks Latin anymore. Lawyer-talk can bring about that face-reddening, fist-making, pencil-breaking (although, if you still use pencils perhaps you understand Latin) frustration that comes from systems that feel archaic. It’s the same feeling you get when explaining how an iPad works to your grandma, or when you hear the dude in the office beside you using a Dictaphone. Lawyers, perhaps, understand this frustration more than anyone.
An amusing professor in law school once quoted the Compensation Act 1592, an act written entirely in Latin. He moved into the anecdote seamlessly and casually as if he hadn’t swapped into an archaic tongue at all. When the quote came to an end, he said, “as you can see, these provisions are self-explanatory” and then moved on. Not a word more went wasted on the contents of the act. Thankfully, I attended law school in the Age of Google Translate.
Often bewildering for non-bar-exam-taking sane people, aside from Latin, are words and phrases that are more accurately defined by their 50-year case history than by a sentence. “Satisfactory quality” sounds like it means “the quality is satisfactory” and “reasonable foreseeability” sounds like it means “you can reasonably foresee it” but the law has created specific and objective ways to interpret these otherwise subjective phrases, so just wait until some so-called “simplicity-bulldozing” lawyers make an entrance.
Soon you will discover that “satisfactory quality” depends on whether the item is second-hand or new, whether it is “fit for the purpose” you purchased it for (another phrase defined by a cluster of case law), whether the seller knew of the purpose you planned to use it for, whether this purpose is reasonable, whether you bought the item for business or pleasure, the cost and reputation of the item, and the list goes on…
If you’re thinking none of this has anything to do with you (it’s your lawyer’s problem, right?), I’ve got one (just one) Latin phrase you may want to keep in mind: ignorantia juris non excusat (unlike my law professor, I’ll translate: “Ignorance of law excuses no one.”)
Admittedly, it won’t take long to find a lawyer on Bay Street who uses fancy language for the sake of it, but that’s not all of us. Integral to understanding and appreciating legal jargon is to first understand that precision of language is more necessary in the legal sector than any other. Whether drafting, litigating, advising, or negotiating, precise language and fierce communication skills are the most powerful and indispensable assets a lawyer can possess.
And it’s not just lawyers. Consider the level of exactness required in drafting legislation or a court judgment. These areas of the legal sector require a profound competence in foreseeing the scope and circumstances to which the laws you create may apply and how to construe your words accordingly.
When getting a grasp of your agreements, of your legal relationships, or of the law at large, take the advice of another of my professors: “exploit your right to use the library,” but in your exploiting, be fastidious. There are plenty of great resources on the law (including the especially fantastic blog you’re on right now), but there are also plenty of not-so-great resources. It’s a lawyer’s job to keep up with ever-evolving legal rules, the language attached to them, and the opportunities they present to clients. Lawyers’ brains are wired to think of the unthought-of. They are among your best resources.
Although your lawyers may at times seem like brazen comprehension-destroyers in the real world, in the legal world they’re just being meticulous. Importantly, the really good lawyers (like, ahem, those at Spark) work hard to be your trusted translators and guides, ensuring that however complex the seemingly-simple appears, you understand the situation you’re in, the risks you face, and the opportunities presented to you by all the legal chaos.