Law School Lingo: Terms Law Students Should Know
Starting law school is excited until you feel like a fish out of water–you’ve never read so slowly in your life, you’re confused about the process, and often you’re confused about terms and phrases that other people just seem to know. I’m not talking about the latin phrases in case law, but rather a classmate talking about joining a white shoe firm. Like, what even is that?
No fear, today, we’re sharing some law school lingo to review and refer to that will hopefully help explain this new world you’re joining. As you review these phrases you’ll notice I mention “prestigious,” “elite,” and “competitive” a lot. And well, welcome to law school. No, but really a lot of these opportunities are exclusive and difficult to get into, so you’ll need to plan and prepare to make sure you hit your goals. And more importantly, it’s necessary to know that many people in positions of power in both private and public interest law, see these experiences as elite and will bump up resumes for that factor (it’s gross, but again, welcome to the world of Law):
- Bar Review: Usually a course that law grads take to study for the bar exam (also, in some schools these are social events at bars with your classmates, hahaha).
- Big Law: This is a nickname used to refer to the biggest, largest law firms in the game. These are firms with offices all over the world, in major cities, bringing in major money. Big. These are the big leagues and they are also competitive and demanding. Not everyone that does private practice ends up in a Big Law law firm.
- Black Letter Law: Refers to the actual, bottom line rule and while that is important to know, your 1L year is spent less on learning BLL and more on the analysis you need to master to determine the BLL.
- Bluebook: Unlike the bluebooks in college, the bluebook is a book of instructions as to how to cite case law in very specific formats. If you’re on law review or are writing appellate briefs, you’ll use this a lot.
- Briefing a Case: Refers to how one study/breaks down a case by writing out the facts, issue, analysis, and conclusion.
- CALI Award: The Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction issues an award for the highest grade in each course. If you get a CALI award in a class you take, you’ll want to highlight it on your resume.
- Clerk/clerkship: Usually refers to an internship with a judge. Clerkships are also considered elite and the higher your judge, the harder and more competitive it gets. Working as clerk, generally means you’re reviewing the arguments the attorneys on each side offer and then draft an opinion for the judge. It’s a lot of writing, citing, and reviewing of the record.
- Clinics: Many law schools have courses run by professors but rather than theory and case law, you get to do hands-on work by representing clients (under the supervision of an attorney). The topics can vary by clinics, but they are good ways to get experience with clients that you may not get in other internships.
- Dicta: When a court issues an opinion, other presiding judges may issue concurring opinions (meaning they agree with ultimate decision, but for different reasons) or dissenting opinions (meaning they don’t agree at all). In those opinions, the judges offer their own analysis that offers “dicta,” almost like hints of ways attorneys could change the rule if different facts were at play. You may often hear that dicta is not controlling, meaning that dicta is not the “rule” but it is a suggestion and highlights arguments one could potentially make in the future.
- Equal Justice Works/America (EJW/EJA): These are fellowships available for law grads to spend one or two years at a nonprofit doing a specific project. The project can be something the student creates along with their sponsoring agency. These fellowships are competitive, usually due in early fall, and considered prestigious as well.
- Holding: The decision from the courts. When you read a case, part of the opinion will include the decision, which is referred to a holding, “the court held that…”
- IRAC/ICRAC: Otherwise known “issue, rule, analysis, conclusion/issue, conclusion, rule, analysis, conclusion” This is how you should begin to review cases. It’s what professors will discuss and how you need to break down a case in your final exams.
- Law Review: Law schools have their own publications that publish legal articles from attorneys and sometimes law students. These articles review and assess new cases or legal issues and dissect them in an academic way (which is different than when they’re discussed in briefs). Getting published in a law review is considered presitgious and some articles may be cited by other academics or even judges in their opinions. Because of that, Law Review is competitive and you either earn a spot because you have great grades or you can “write on,” which is a competition at the end of the year that lets you apply for a spot.
- “Making Partner”: Becoming at a partner, especially in a large firm is a big deal. Not only because it’s a promotion that comes with nice financial security but it means you have stake in the game. You earn more based on the law firm’s structure and business they bring in–it also means you’ve put in the time and work for them to view you as an asset to their firm.
- Moot Court: Law schools have various teams that compete in moot court. Moot court is essentially mock appellate work. Appellate work is when you argue cases that were decided in the trial level to the judges in the courts above them. Unlike trial, there are no witnesses or evidence to submit, rather the argument is all based on the record that has already been submitted. In Moot Court, your team is given a topic where you write a brief and then do mock arguments in front of judges. This is the type of argument where the judges can interrupt and ask questions. You usually have to try-out to make a team.
- On Campus Interviews (OCI): This is an event, usually in early fall semester, where law firms and other employers come to your campus to interview you for a position for the following summer. OCI is very structured and sometimes competitive, so if you’re interested in a job in private practice or a larger firm, you need to work with career center to learn about OCI.
- Socratic Method: This is the traditional format used by professors in most 1L law school courses. It starts with an open-ended questions (what did the court decide) and then the professor pushes back with why and what if scenarios that require you to tweak and re-assess your answer. It can be scary and increase anxiety, and while some profs like to trip up students, you get better once you realize your answer will never be “right” but rather a stepping stone for the professor to expand the topic you’re discussing. Still never-wracking though!
- Stare decisis/precedent: When a superior court issues a decision they set a precedent, also known as stare decisis, which lower courts must follow.
- Torts: A foundational class all 1Ls take, and it focuses on personal injury caused by someone (individual, corporation, event) either intentionally or through negligence.
- White Shoe Law Firm: Refers to older, established, highly successful law firms (even more elite than Big Law). To date, I believe there is one Latina partner at Cravath, the epitome of white shoe.
What are some terms that confused you when you first started?