Imagine sitting across the table from someone and not understanding half of what they’re saying – even though you’re paying hundreds of dollars an hour to listen to them speak! It’s common practice for people who sit down with an attorney. The lawyer is speaking English but the language is totally foreign. It’s actually “legalese,” and believe it or not most attorneys are not trying to make things more confusing or scare you into thinking that the law is so complicated only an attorney could possibly understand it – they just forget to use plain English. But you as the client can bring your attorney back down to literal reality and get them to talk in clear everyday language.
As soon as something doesn’t register stop the attorney and ask them to back up. Don’t be afraid that the attorney is going to think less of you. It’s their job to help you understand the law. But you can make their job easier and keep your legal bill down by boning up on some basic ‘legalese” terminology, like:
“Billables” typically mean the amount of time or “billable hours” an attorney is spending on your case for which you are being billed. Some attorneys break out their billing time in 6 minute increments or tenths of an hour, others bill in 15 minute blocks. Make sure you ask about this before you hire an attorney and carefully read the fee agreement they give you to sign.
The location that the case originated or place that a lawsuit can be filed.
What you file in court which gets the ball rolling on a lawsuit. The Complaint spells out who did what, when and where, and what the injured party wants.
The law as created by court cases – judges and juries, as opposed to statutes which are created by the legislature. Many people think that there are specific statutes or laws for every legal issue they face. The reality is many times the only thing lawyers have to go by are cases that happened in the past, and they use information from those cases to create a winning argument from you. Case Law refers to those cases from the past that might help or hurt you.
Within a legal context, “the parties” are the people or businesses or entities that are part of a dispute or lawsuit. The “moving party” is the one who gets the ball rolling and is making a claim.
Massachusetts lawyers often talk about “93A claims or demand.” When they do they are typically referring to a violation of Massachusetts General Law – the state consumer protection statute. This can be a really lethal claim, because in certain circumstances the person who has been hurt in some way might be able to get their legal fees reimbursed and up to three times the value of their actual damages.
Discovery is the way lawyers get information from the other side to prove or defend their client’s claim. It can involve demanding that the other side produce documents or answer questions in writing. It can also involve making the other side or other people with information about the case answer questions under oath.
“Legalese” shows up nearly everywhere in our daily lives. Each one of us has legal dealings on a regular basis, like when you sign up for a credit card, buy insurance, rent an apartment, set up a bank account, or order something over the Internet. In each of those cases you are entering into a contract. When you visit your doctor’s office, you’re signing legal releases. You even will come across “legalese” when you leave your car in a parking garage – next time you do take a look at the back of the ticket they give you! You’ll probably see words like “bailment” and “indemnification.” All these scenarios have legal ramifications and you want to be able to identify and decipher what the legal words mean. Some words and phrases show up over and over again. For instance:
Consideration is what you get and what you give when you are entering into a contract or agreement. Both sides have to give and get something or there really is no contract.
Real property is usually land and the buildings or structures built on it. You will see the words “real property” on documents like a deed, a mortgage, an appraisal and an equity line of credit.
Tangible and Intangible Property
Tangible property is the stuff you own that can be “touched”. For instance in a Will you might state that “I leave all my tangible personal property to my spouse…” or “I leave my baseball trading card collection” “I leave all my jewelry to my children” “I leave my 1963 split window Corvette”. These are all examples of tangible property.
Intangible property is property which cannot be touched, like if someone owes you a debt. That money that is owed to you is intangible property. Another example is the stock you own in Google or whatever other type of stock/bonds you own as part of your retirement portfolio. Intangible property is something that you own, but cannot touch, although cash is typically considered intangible.
If you want money from someone and use property or other assets as collateral, you usually have to give a security interest. That means that the person or institution giving you the money can sell whatever you use as collateral if you don’t pay them back. Mortgages are security interests.
An “Attorney-in-Fact does not have to be a lawyer. It’s usually someone that you have chosen to manage a certain financial, business or legal matter for you, or have chosen to manage your matters in general. This is while you are alive. Sometimes people choose a bank or investment company trustee department to be their “attorney-in-fact,” although most people choose their spouse, sibling, or an adult child.
A custodian is someone you choose to be in charge and have custody of certain property or investments or other assets. An example is a bank account for a minor child. The bank usually lists a parent as the custodian of the account.
If you promise to reimburse someone or some entity if something goes wrong or they have a loss of some kind, you are indemnifying them. For instance, when you sign a lease, a landlord will ask you for indemnification if there is damage done to the property. This can be very tricky and you have to check carefully whenever there is a mention of indemnification. Its one thing to promise reimbursement if something is your fault, but many times the language is written that puts you on the hook even if you aren’t at fault!
The Mortgagor is the person who promises to pay a mortgage, in other words the debtor. That’s you and me when we get a mortgage from a bank. The Mortgagee is the person or company that loans the money out, the creditor. That’s the bank or mortgage company.
When you are talking about leases (house, furniture, cars, equipment, whatever…), the Lessor is the one who owns what is being leased out (i.e. the landlord). The Lessee is the one who leases or rents. The Lessee has possession of whatever is being leased, but they don’t own it.
A Bailment is when someone gives something to someone else to hold or take care of for them. The person giving it is the bailor, the person taking care of it is the bailee and that person is responsible for taking good care of the property. When the bailment is over, the property has to go back to the owner. Where you see this is when you park your car in a garage or lot. Many times they will put on the back of your ticket or on a sign that there is NO bailment, meaning you can park there but they aren’t resposnsible for what happened to your car or what’s inside.
If you “hold someone harmless”it means you can’t hold them responsible if something goes wrong – even if it is their fault! It’s great if someone holds You harmless, but watch out if it’s the other way around. You typically see this language in a lease.
Joint and Several Liability
When you co-sign something with someone else you usually are agreeing to joint and several liability. That means that even though you both signed on as being responsible, if the other person doesn’t pay up you will be on the hook for the whole amount due!!!! This applies to things like car loans, student loans, leases, credit cards, you name it……
This means you voluntarily give up a right that you are entitled to! Like if you find yourself in hot water with the police and you waive your right to have an attorney present before you speak with them!
You don’t have to go to law school to bring yourself up to speed. Don’t gloss over confusing language or be intimidated into signing something you don’t fully understand. There are some fantastic resource books and on-line dictionaries that define legal terms in everyday English. If you see a word that sounds legal but you’re not sure what it means you can go on the internet and check it out. But be careful. If you are using a dictionary or on-line resource you’re only looking up the meaning of a word, not getting legal advice on what you are reading or signing. If what you are reading or signing could translate into big responsibility or big financial exposure, check with an attorney. Only now you’ll both be talking the same language!