Law School Prep: Legal Terms to Know Before Law School
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michigan bar exam30 Legal Terms to Know Before Law School 

If you are heading to law school next year, you may want to start preparing now.  We will be writing a series of blog posts over the summer for students interested in using part of the summer to prepare for law school.

One thing you can do pre-law school is to become acquainted with legal terms that you will see in law school. Upon entering law school, you will encounter legal jargon that you may be unfamiliar with. These are often Latin phrases and words. Many of the principles and statues, still in practice today, have developed from ancient Roman law, which were written in Latin. This explains why many terms heard in the courtroom and found in legal texts are in Latin.

As a law student and a lawyer, it is important to be familiar with these legal terms that are commonly used in the field of law. Understanding how and when to use these words, is crucial in order to properly understand the law and how to apply it. By becoming familiar with these 30 legal terms to know before law school, you can get a head start on law school over the summer.

 30 Legal Terms to Know Before Law School 

Listed below are 30 commonly used legal Latin words and phrases:

All definitions provided here are derived from the //

Actus Reus:

Latin for “guilty act.” As an element of criminal responsibility, the wrongful act or omission that comprises the physical components of a crime. Criminal statutes generally require proof of both actus reus and mens rea on the part of a defendant in order to establish criminal liability.

Ad hoc:

Latin shorthand meaning “for this purpose only.” Thus, an ad hoc committee is formed for a specific purpose, usually appointed to solve a particular problem. An ad hoc attorney is one hired to handle one problem only often is a specialist in a particular area or considered especially able to argue a key point.


Latin for “he has made an oath.” An oath or affirmation reduced to writing, sworn or affirmed to before some officer who has authority to administer it. It differs from a deposition in this, that in the latter the opposite party has had an opportunity to cross-examine the witness, whereas an affidavit is always taken ex parte

Amicus Curiae:

Latin for “friend of the court.” A party or an organization interested in an issue, which files a brief or participates in the argument in a case in which that party or organization is not one of the litigants.

Bona fide:

Latin for “in good faith.” it signifies honesty, the “real thing” and, in the case of a party claiming title as “bona fide” purchaser or holder, it indicates innocence or lack of knowledge of any fact that would cast doubt on the right to hold title.

Caveat emptor:

Latin for “let the buyer beware.” The basic premise that the buyer buys at his/her own risks and therefore should examine and test a product himself/herself for obvious defects and imperfections. Caveat emptor still applies even if the purchase is “as is” or when a defect is obvious upon reasonable inspection before purchase.


Latin for “to be informed of.” A writ seeking review of a lower court decision by a higher court.

Certiorari is an extraordinary prerogative writ granted in cases that otherwise would not be entitled to review. A petition for certiorari is made to a superior appellate court, which may exercise its discretion in accepting a case for review, while an appeal of a case from a lower court to an intermediate appellate court, or from an intermediate appellate court to a superior appellate court, is regulated by statute. Appellate review of a case that is granted by the issuance of certiorari is sometimes called an appeal, although such review is at the discretion of the appellate court.

De Facto:

Latin for “in fact.” This phrase is used to characterize an officer, a government, a past action, or a state of affairs that must be accepted for all practical purposes, but is illegal or illegitimate. Existing in actuality, especially when contrary to or not established by law: de facto segregation.

De Jure:

Latin for “in law.” Having complied with all the requirements imposed by law.

De Novo:

Latin for “anew,” which means starting over, as in a trial de novo. For example, a decision in small claims case may be appealed to a local trial court, which may try the case again, de novo.

Duces Tecum:

Latin for “bring with you. “Commonly called a Subpoena Duces Tecum, a type of legal writ requiring one who has been summoned to appear in court to bring some specified item with him or her for use or examination by the court.

A person served with a subpoena duces tecum might be required to present documents, such as business records or other pieces of physical evidence, for the inspection of the court.

Ex Parte:

Latin meaning “for one party,” referring to motions, hearings or orders granted on the request of and for the benefit of one party only. This is an exception to the basic rule of court procedure that both parties must be present at any argument before a judge, and to the otherwise strict rule that an attorney may not notify a judge without previously notifying the opposition. Ex parte matters are usually temporary orders (like a restraining order or temporary custody) pending a formal hearing, or an emergency request for a continuance. Most jurisdictions require at least a diligent attempt to contact the other party’s lawyer of the time and place of any ex parte hearing.

Habeas corpus:

Latin for “you have the body,” it is a writ (court order) which directs the law enforcement officials (prison administrators, police, or sheriff) who have custody of a prisoner to appear in court to help the judge determine whether the prisoner is unlawfully in prison or jail. The writ is obtained by petition to a judge in the county or district where the prisoner is incarcerated, and the judge sets a hearing on whether there is a legal basis for holding the prisoner. Habeas corpus is a protection against illegal confinement, such as holding a person without charges, when due process obviously has been denied, bail is excessive, parole has been granted, an accused has been improperly surrendered by the bail bondsman, or probation has been summarily terminated without cause. Historically called “the great writ,” the renowned scholar of the Common Law, William Blackstone called it the “most celebrated writ in English law.” It may also be used as a means to contest child custody and deportation proceedings in court. The writ of habeas corpus can be employed procedurally in federal district courts to challenge the constitutionality of a state court conviction.

In re:

Latin for “in the matter of.” Concerning or regarding. The usual style for the name of a judicial proceeding having some item of property at the center of the dispute rather than adverse parties.

Inter alia:

Latin for “among other things.” This phrase is often found in legal pleadings and writings to specify one example out of many possibilities. Example: “The judge said, inter alia, that the time to file the action had passed.”

Ipso facto:

Latin for “by the fact itself.” This phrase is frequently employed to convey the idea that something, which has been done contrary, to law is void.

Mens rea:

Latin for a “guilty mind,” or criminal intent in committing the act. The term used to describe the mental element required to constitute a crime. Generally it requires that the accused meant or intended to do wrong or at least knew he was doing wrong. However, the precise mental element varies from crime to crime.

Per curiam:

Latin for “by the court,” defining a decision of an appeals court as a whole in which no judge is identified as the specific author. Sometimes per curiam signifies an opinion written by the chief justice or presiding judge; it can also refer to a brief oral announcement of the disposition of a case by the court that is unaccompanied by a written opinion.

Per se:

Latin for “by itself”, meaning inherently. Thus a published writing which falsely accuses another of having a venereal disease or being a convicted felon is “libel per se”, without further explanation of the meaning of the statement.

Prima facie:

Latin for “at first look,” or “on its face,” referring to a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial. A prima facie case presented to a grand jury by the prosecution will result in an indictment.

Pro bono:

Latin “for the public good,” legal work performed by lawyers without pay to help people with legal problems and limited or no funds, or provide legal assistance to organizations involved in social causes such as the environmental, consumers, minorities, youth, battered women and education organizations and charities.

Pro hac vice:

Latin for “this time only,” the phrase refers to the application of an out-of-state lawyer to appear in court for a particular trial, even though he/she is not licensed to practice in the state where the trial is being held. The application is usually granted, but sometimes the court requires association with a local attorney.

Pro se:

Latin for “for himself”. A party to a lawsuit who represents himself (acting in propria persona) is appearing in the case “pro se.”

Quantum Meruit:

Latin for “as much as he deserved,” the actual value of services performed. Quantum meruit determines the amount to be paid for services when no contract exists or when there is doubt as to the amount due for the work performed but done under circumstances when payment could be expected.

Quid Pro Quo:

Latin for “what for what, or something for something.” The mutual consideration that passes between two parties to a contractual agreement, thereby rendering the agreement valid and binding. In common usage, quid pro quo refers to the giving of one valuable thing for another. Quid pro quo has the same meaning in the law but with varying implications in different contexts. Quid pro quo, or the exchange for valuable consideration, is required for the formation of a valid contract between individuals who are not merchants. This requirement of mutual consideration, or the exchange of something of value, indicates the sincerity of the parties’ intent to adhere to the contract between them.

Res Ipsa Loquitur:

Latin for “the thing speaks for itself,” a doctrine of law that one is presumed to be negligent if he/she/it had exclusive control of whatever caused the injury even though there is no specific evidence of an act of negligence, and without negligence the accident would not have happened.

Respondeat superior:

Latin for “let the master answer.” A key doctrine in the law of agency, which provides that a principal (employer) is responsible for the actions of his/her/its agent (employee) in the “course of employment.” Thus, an agent who signs an agreement to purchase goods for his employer in the name of the employer can create a binding contract between the seller and the employer.

Stare Decisis:

Latin for “to stand by a decision.” The doctrine that a trial court is bound by appellate court decisions (precedents) on a legal question, which is raised in the lower court. Reliance on such precedents is required of trial courts until such time as an appellate court changes the rule, for the trial court cannot ignore the precedent (even when the trial judge believes it is “bad law”).

Status Quo:

Latin for “The existing state of things at any given date.The existing condition or state of affairs. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status, which preceded the pending controversy.

Ultra Vires:

Latin for “beyond the power.” An act is ultra vires if it is beyond the legal powers of the person doing it; thus an act by a company not expressly or impliedly permitted by its memorandum or articles is ultra vires.

These are just a few of the common and widely used legal terms one is sure to come across in their legal career. They would all be good legal terms to know before law school. All definitions provided here are derived from the //