Friday, September 07, 2007

Neither law school nor the practice of law should be a Latin mass

Latin mass
Eugene Volokh asks whether there are "Latin phrases law students should know, but likely don't":
What Latin phrases should law students learn . . . ? I'm not looking for phrases that are legal terms of art that they'll learn in the relevant class, such as res judicata, habeas corpus, and the like.

Rather, I have in mind things like e.g., i.e., viz., prima facie, sui generis, inter alia, in camera, et al., and such -- common phrases that arise in many areas of the law, yet ones that many incoming law students may not know, and that they won't learn in any of their other classes. Students should understand these phrases, and know how to use them right (though in some situations the best solution is not to use them at all; for instance, better say "among other things" than "inter alia").
I like Eugene's last point best. There are no Latin phrases that law students should learn, beyond those that are used to define or describe specific legal concepts. Yes, lawyers do need to know phrases such as habeas corpus and subpoena duces tecum. And if they learn that these phrases mean, roughly, "you have the body" and "under penalty of law, bring it with you," so much the better.

Tower of BabelUnder penalty of school, we force virtually every law student in this country to buy Richard Wydick's Plain English for Lawyers. Then we undo the good by spouting Latin phrases as if they conferred magical strength. Bah. Speak English. Learn a (living) foreign language. Or six or eight. But leave Latin at home.

Time spent on Latin phrases might be better spent on learning languages that tomorrow's lawyers will encounter: Spanish. Urdu. Hmong.

Mastery of multiple languages aside, Latin also impairs good communication in English. So many lawyers cloak their arguments in a shroud of Latin phrases. This is a losing tactic. If you have an ugly argument, dressing it in Latin won't make it prettier. It will simply make you harder to understand. Then again, perhaps that was the point all along.

To sum up: The next time I hear a law student, lawyer, or (so help me God) law professor say "e.g." instead of "for example" or "i.e." instead of "that is," I'll prescribe ten recitations of the Pater Noster and fifteen recitations of Ave Maria. In Latin, of course.

Ecco ancilio legibus -- behold here the bucket-bearer of the law.


Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

I recommend as an appropriate penance, the Litany of Humility:
nunc pro tunc, of course.

9/07/2007 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude--"e.g." *is* English--just like "thug" or "peon."
You're going overboard here!


9/11/2007 1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dears,
Due the fact that the Law was borne in Ancient Rome (forget about Hamuraby), a law student should know a little Latin history...
Also, during the Middle Age the European Intelligency used Latin (not the same of Rome, however).
So, if a present lawyer knows some Latin dictons, it might look like a good learner...or something!
And, by the way, it is the Ancients fault if we have to learn Urdu, Spanish, Hmong...

10/13/2008 6:31 PM  

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