The use of legalese - highly specialized terminology in legal documents - can make something straightforward seem incredibly complex and abstruse. Lawyers insert this “jargon” in their legal documents, and some even pepper their advice with Latin phrases or other technical terms, much to the chagrin of their audience. Although it may seem like just another professional pretension (akin to those acronyms bankers love to use), the truth is there are important legal principles embedded in Latin phrases, which is why they have stood the test of time since their origins in ancient Rome’s legal system.
Despite their usefulness in describing complex legal concepts, Latin phrases tend not to roll off the tongue easily, which is why I thought it would be interesting (and fun) to explore some of them. Here are my Top 10 favorite Latin legal phrases:
- Ipso facto - Latin for "by the fact itself." While this may be an expression that appeals more to comedians making fun of lawyers than to clients, I consider it an elegant way of stating the obvious. For example, "a lawyer who is fluent in Latin, ipso facto, is brilliant.”
- Mutatis mutandis - No, this is not the “wonderful phrase” from a Lion King song; rather, it is a useful phrase that means “the necessary changes having been made.” A sort of Romanesque “replace all.” For, example, when describing changes made to a lease, one might say that an increase in rent would be applied mutatis mutandis to all those provisions in the original lease that involve the amounts to be paid. Make sense? If not, well, hakuna matata, because no one else understands it either.
- Per se - Latin for “by itself or in and of itself.” Also, the name of one of New York City’s most expensive restaurants. I am not a fan of high-priced restaurants per se, but I will splurge on dinner occasionally.
- Res ipsa loquitur - This Latin phrase means "the thing speaks for itself." This legal concept is primarily applicable in negligence cases where a party is presumed to be negligent if they had exclusive control of whatever caused the injury and the injury could not have happened unless there was negligence involved. For example, if a brick happens to fall onto a pedestrian from the rooftop above where construction is being done, the construction company can be found negligent on the basis of res ipsa loquitur even if no one saw anyone drop the brick. It is also handy for cutting off lame excuses and fabrications, such as when confronting my son who claims he cleaned up the kitchen, I simply point to the sink full of dirty dishes and say “res ipsa loquitur.”
- In loco parentis - No, this Latin phrase does not refer to how many parents felt while trapped in the house with their children during the pandemic. It actually means "instead of a parent" or "in place of a parent." A school may act in loco parentis while a student is in its care. After a full year of distance learning, many parents are probably more than willing to have the support of others in loco parentis.
- Quantum meruit - This equitable Latin principle translates to “amount deserved or earned” and is often used to determine the amount to be paid for services when either no contract exists or there is doubt as to the amount due for the work performed. For example, a babysitter is entitled to quantum merit payment if an hourly rate was not discussed before leaving her alone to care for your unruly children.
- In pari delicto - Latin for "in equal fault,” this phrase sounds romantic but it actually applies to even the most mundane activity involving two (or more) people. For instance, even the most disloyal criminal will have a hard time blaming his or her co-conspirator if there is proof that both were involved in pari delicto in the crime.
- Non sequitur - A popular Latin for "it does not follow" which is used to illustrate the incongruity of two things. For example, you may think this blog post is pointless, but you are still reading it. Ire figure (Latin for “go figure”).
- In terrorem (clause) - This Latin phrase describes a specific clause often included in wills for the purpose of threatening to cut off or reduce the value of a bequest if a beneficiary should challenge the will’s legality. Talk about having the last word.
- Ad infinitum - Finally, the Latin phrase for something that seemingly goes on forever. For fear of going on ad infinitum with this blog post, I will end it here.
I hope you enjoyed this quick primer on Latin phrases commonly used by lawyers. Until next time, carpe diem!
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Deborah Stehr is a member of our New York-area team and brings over 25 years of transactional and technology experience with a particular focus on the consumer goods industry, including digital services and e-commerce. Deborah has considerable experience in structuring both domestic and international arrangements for the manufacture, supply, distribution and sale of goods, as well as in protecting and monetizing brands and intellectual property throughout the product life cycle.