Must-Know Terms for New Law Students

If you've ever read the terms and conditions for your Wi-Fi provider, you understand that the law is a language of its own. But why does it have to be so complicated? Many archaic terms have been sealed in legal language over the centuries. But, it is also very important to be precise and account for every possible contingency. For example, the validity of a contract can rest on the inclusion or omission of a single word.

We’ve curated this list of must-know legal terms for incoming law students. It would be nice if memorizing this glossary was all it took to become a lawyer, but this is just the beginning. We start with some general vocabulary that you’ll be hearing a lot in your first semester as a law student. The rest of the list is divided into Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Contracts and Sales, Real Property, and Torts.

Looking for more ways to prepare for law school? Check out the orientation skills section of Themis’s free 1L Law School Essentials course for tips on case briefing, studying for exams, multiple choice and essay practice questions, and taking class notes.

Make sure to bookmark this page as a reference, and good luck in law school!

General Law School Terms

  1. 1L, 2L, 3L — Abbreviations representing each year of law school
  2. Bluebook — Citation manual used as a guide for legal citations in court documents and law journals
  3. Case Law — Law derived from judicial court decisions rather than statutes enacted by legislatures or regulations issued by administrative agencies
  4. Case Brief — A concise summary of a legal case, including the facts, procedural history, issues presented, holding, reasoning, and implications
  5. Clerking — Working as a clerk, typically for a judge, to assist with legal research, drafting opinions, and other legal tasks
  6. Common Law — A system of law based on judicial decisions rather than statutes
  7. Con Law — Abbreviation for Constitutional Law
  8. Crim — Abbreviation used for Criminal Law
  9. Defendant — The party accused or sued in a court of law
  10. Discovery — The process through which parties to a case obtain evidence from one another
  11. FRCP (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) — A set of rules governing civil procedure in the United States federal courts
  12. Hypo (Hypothetical) — A fictional legal scenario designed as an analytical exercise or to assess a student's understanding of legal principles
  13. IRAC* (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) — A systematic method used to break a legal problem into parts: identify the Issue, state the legal Rule, Apply the rule to the facts, and draw a Conclusion. *Variations of this process include CREAC, CRAC, and more
  14. K — Abbreviation for Contracts
  15. Legal Research Platforms — You will likely use legal databases like Westlaw, and Lexis to research the law
  16. Moot Court — Simulated court proceeding where law students practice in appellate advocacy by arguing hypothetical cases
  17. MPRE® (Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination) — An exam on legal ethics and professional responsibility required for bar admission in most US jurisdictions
  18. Outline — Main points of a course or topic, organized to aid in the understanding of legal subjects
  19. Plaintiff — The party bringing a case against another party in a court of law
  20. Precedent — A court decision with authority to bind subsequent legal decisions that have similar facts or legal issues
  21. Remedies — Methods through which courts enforce legal judgments
  22. Socratic Method — A teaching technique that uses questioning to uncover students' understanding of case facts and rulings
  23. Statute — A written law passed by a legislative body
  24. UBE® (Uniform Bar Examination) — A standardized bar exam developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners(NCBE®)
  25. UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) — A set of laws governing commercial transactions between states with the intention to harmonize the law of sales and other commercial transactions across the country

Civil Procedure

  1. Common Nucleus of Operative Fact — Standard to determine whether claims are related for purposes of supplemental jurisdiction
  2. De Novo — Anew; from the beginning
  3. Diversity Jurisdiction — A federal court’s exercise of authority over a case involving parties who are citizens of different states and an amount in controversy greater than a statutory minimum
  4. Domicile — The place a person resides with intent to remain and to treat as their permanent home
  5. Impleaded — Added as a third party to a lawsuit
  6. In rem — Involving or determining the status of a thing
  7. Interpleader — An action by a person holding property to force all potential claimants to litigate ownership or possession
  8. Intervenor — A nonparty who joins an ongoing lawsuit
  9. Jurisdiction — A court's competence to hear and determine cases
  10. Long-Arm Statute — Statute that authorizes personal jurisdiction over nonresidents who engage in some activity in the state or cause some action to occur within the state
  11. Peremptory — Final; not open to appeal or challenge
  12. Personal Jurisdiction — A court's authority to rule on matters involving the party being sued in a lawsuit
  13. Quasi in rem — Involving or determining the rights of a person having interest in property located in the forum state
  14. Res Judicata — “A matter judged;” claim preclusion for a matter already litigated
  15. Subpoena — A court order to appear and testify; subpoena duces tecum is a court order to appear and bring specified documents
  16. Subject Matter Jurisdiction — The authority of a court to decide on specific kinds of issues and deliver a resolution
  17. Summary Judgment — A judgment granted when there is no genuine issue of material fact for the trier of fact to determine

Criminal Law

  1. Abetting — Encouraging or assisting another in committing a crime
  2. Accomplice — A person who, with the requisite mens rea, aids or abets a principal prior to or during the commission of the crime
  3. Actus Reus — “Guilty act,” the wrongful act or omission that is the required conduct for a crime
  4. Depraved-Heart Murder — A killing that results from reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high-risk to human life
  5. Felony Murder — An unintended killing proximately caused by and during the commission or attempted commission of an inherently dangerous felony
  6. Heat of Passion — Provoked by a situation that could inflame the passion of a reasonable person to the extent that it could cause that person to momentarily act out of passion rather than reason
  7. Inchoate — Not fully formed or developed; preparing for or seeking to commit another crime
  8. Malice — A reckless disregard of or indifference to a high risk of harm, without excuse or justification
  9. Mens Rea — “Guilty mind;” the required mental state for a crime
  10. Merger — The absorption of a lesser-included offense into the greater
  11. Peremptory — Final; not open to appeal or challenge
  12. Premeditation — Reflection and planning that precedes the commission of a crime
  13. Principal — The person whose acts or omissions are the actus reus of the crime; the perpetrator of the crime
  14. Reckless — A conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk
  15. Specific Intent — A subjective desire or specific objective to accomplish a prohibited result
  16. Strict Liability — Liability that requires only proof of the actus reus; no specific mens rea is necessary to support a conviction

Contracts and Sales

  1. Acceptance — An objective manifestation by the offeree to be bound by the terms of the offer
  2. Accord — An agreement by one party to a contract to accept performance from the other party that differs from the performance that was promised in the existing contract, in satisfaction of the other party’s existing duty
  3. Anticipatory Repudiation — A promisor’s indication of intention not to perform before the time for performance is due
  4. Bilateral Contract — A promise by one party is exchanged for a promise by the other
  5. Condition — A future event that must take place before a party’s contractual rights or obligations are created, destroyed, or enlarged
  6. Consideration — Bargained for change in the legal position between the parties
  7. Integration — The full expression of the agreement between parties to a contract
  8. Mailbox Rule — The principle that an acceptance that is mailed within the allotted response time is effective and binding when sent, unless the offer provides otherwise
  9. Merchantability — Suitability for buying and selling; implied warranty promising a product is fit for the ordinary purpose for which it was intended
  10. Mutual Assent — Agreement by both parties to a contract in the form of offer and acceptance
  11. Offer — An objective manifestation of a willingness by the offeror to enter into an agreement that creates the power of acceptance in the offeree
  12. Parol Evidence Rule — Common-law principle that prevents a party to a written contract from presenting extrinsic evidence of a prior or contemporaneous agreement that contradicts the terms of the contract as written
  13. Predominant — The strongest or main, as a predominant element
  14. Promissory Estoppel — A common-law doctrine to enforce promises that were made and relied upon
  15. Quasi — Almost; analogous to
  16. Satisfaction — The performance of the accord agreement; it will discharge both the original contract and the accord contract
  17. Suretyship — A contract to answer for the debt or duty of another
  18. Tender — To offer or present
  19. Unilateral Contract — One party promises to do something in return for an act of the other party

Real Property

  1. Assignment — A complete transfer of the tenant's remaining lease term
  2. Bona Fide Purchaser — An innocent party who purchases property without notice of any other party’s claim to title
  3. Color of Title — A claim to title based upon a written instrument that appears valid but is legally defective
  4. Concurrent — At the same time, as a concurrent estate is owned or possessed by two or more persons simultaneously
  5. Defeasible Fee — An estate whose rights of ownership are dependent upon the occurrence or non-occurrence of an event
  6. Dominant Estate — The property benefitted by an easement over another parcel
  7. Executory — Not yet fully executed or performed
  8. Habitable — Suitable for residential use
  9. Holdover Tenant — A renter who remains in possession after expiration of the lease
  10. Laches — A plaintiff’s undue delay in pursuing a claim that causes prejudice to the defendant
  11. Marketable Title — Title free from defects
  12. Reversion — A future interest that is retained by the grantor after the conveyance of less than the entire estate
  13. Retaliatory Eviction — A landlord’s eviction of a residential tenant as retaliation for the tenant’s reporting a housing code violation
  14. Run With the Land — Pass with the transfer of property, as a real covenant
  15. Servient Estate — The property burdened by an easement imposed upon it in favor of another parcel
  16. Subjacent — Underneath or below, as support of the surface by the underlying land
  17. Sublease — Any transfer for less than the entire duration of the lease
  18. Survivorship — The right of a surviving joint tenant(s) to automatically take the deceased tenant’s interest
  19. Tacking — The adding of one possessor’s period of possession to the prior adverse possessor to meet the statute of limitations
  20. Touch and Concern the Land — Affect the promisor and promisee as landowners, not as individuals, as a real covenant
  21. Vested — Fully and unconditionally guaranteed as a legal right, benefit, or privilege


  1. Abnormally Dangerous — Creating a foreseeable and highly significant risk of physical harm even when reasonable care is exercised; generally describing an activity not commonly engaged in
  2. Apprehension — Fear, anxiety, or awareness, in Torts, of imminent harmful or offensive contact
  3. “But For” Test — Doctrine that the defendant’s conduct is a factual cause of the harm if the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred without the defendant’s tortious act or omission
  4. Chattel — Tangible, personal property
  5. Contributory Fault — A plaintiff’s failure to exercise reasonable care for her own safety that contributes to her injury
  6. Eggshell Plaintiff — A fragile plaintiff; basis for the rule that the extent of damages need not be foreseeable; also referred to as “thin-skull” plaintiff
  7. Extreme and Outrageous — Exceeds the possible limits of human decency
  8. Frolic and Detour — Describes the occasion when an agent/employee deviates from the assigned task of the principal/employer; a frolic is major whereas a detour is typically minor
  9. Intermeddling — Intentionally interfering with another; bringing about a physical contact
  10. Invitee — Someone invited to enter or remain on the land for the purpose for which the land is held open to the public or for a purpose connected to business dealings with the land possessor
  11. Joint and Several Liability — Principle by which each of two or more tortfeasors who is found liable for a single and indivisible harm to the plaintiff is subject to liability to the plaintiff for the entire harm
  12. Licensee — Someone who enters the land of another with the express or implied permission of the land possessor or with a privilege
  13. Offensive — Disagreeable to a person of ordinary sensibilities (reasonable person)
  14. Res Ipsa Loquitur — “The thing speaks for itself;” the doctrine allowing a trier of fact to infer the existence of negligence in the absence of direct evidence
  15. Respondeat Superior — The liability of an employer for an employee’s torts
  16. Superseding Cause — Any intervening event that breaks the chain of proximate causation between the defendant’s tortious act and the plaintiff’s harm

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