Understanding Legalese

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By Valerie S. Johnson

Lawyers speak, write, and think in a foreign language. It’s called legalese. They learned to communicate that way in law school. After years of practice, it rolls off their silver tongues.

Attorneys don’t intentionally try to confuse their clients. Sometimes they forget that it’s babble to you. They just assume you are familiar with a general-durable-power-of-attorney-will-health-directive-irrevocable-trust-claim.

The problem is that if you pretend to know when you really don’t understand, it can end up costing you money. It’s important that you know exactly what your lawyer is talking about in order for you to make the proper decisions in your situation.

If you do not understand anything your lawyer says or any document he or she gives you, ask “What does that mean?”. Remember, this person is putting into motion things that will affect your life in important ways. You must understand what you are agreeing to do (or not do). Insist that your attorney explain any word, phrase or concept you don’t understand.

For basic reference, check out the online dictionaries such as dictionary.law.com and legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com which provide definitions of some legal terms. After looking them up and figuring out their meaning, speak with your lawyer to confirm that you truly do understand the meaning of each term.

Here are some examples of common legalese terms with translations:

To execute a document means to sign it. Of course, an execution has a different meaning if you’re on Death Row.

Herein is a shorthand term for “in this here document” and therein means “in that there document.” So “Section 6 herein” refers to the document you are reading at that moment and “therein” is referring to some other document.

If you indemnify me, it means you’re going to pay if I have to pay. Typically, if someone else sues me and I lose, you’re going to foot the bill. The phrase “indemnify, hold harmless and defend” is often used; lawyers like to use lots of words to cover all their bases.

A sentence with liable or liability means that if something bad happens, it’s predetermined to be somebody’s fault, and they will have to pay for it. Hopefully, it’s not you.

A power of attorney is not a person. You don’t refer to me as your power of attorney. It is a right that you give to someone to act on your behalf, for example, to sign a document or to make a decision. It gets a bit confusing because the document that you sign to empower them is usually called a Power of Attorney.

By taking the time to understand the legalese that is part of your discussion with your lawyer, you put yourself in the position to know exactly what is going on and to make decisions that won’t cost you money because you didn’t understand what was being said.