Legal Definitions That People Should Know

Knowing the law is difficult. I’m a lawyer and I have problems understanding it.

A lot of people probably don’t realize that lawyers spend an awful lot of time with their noses in books – statutes, case law, code, rules, regulations, etc. There is no end to the amount of reading that a lawyer is required to do. Furthermore, all of this reading takes place after law school. It’s called “continuing legal education.”

One area that some lawyers have problems with is knowing the exact, succinct definitions of common terms legal, “joint-legal custody”, “physical custody”, “spousal maintenance”, “mediation”, “marital property”, “division of marital assets”, etc. The list could go on-and-on.

I know that many of these words sound like they should be obvious. You might say to me: “why don’t you just go look in the dictionary?” Good point, I might answer. But which dictionary? A legal dictionary? Websters dictionary? An online dictionary?

I’ll let you in a little lawyer secret: the dictionaries listed above are often not very helpful. The problem with the definitions in dictionaries like those listed above is that they don’t contain the correct “legal” meaning that lawyers can use when representing a client before a court of law.

“So where can I find the correct legal definitions,” you might ask. The lawyer’s answer: in the law or “code” of you state. That’s right, the law changes from state-to-state and, sometimes, county-to-county. It is complicated stuff.

That is why many people just can’t do a very good representing themselves without a lawyer – they can’t be expected to know all the correct legal definitions. They can’t be expected to know that they can’t just look in a dictionary for the correct legal definitions. They certainly can’t be expected to know where the proper state law is and how to read it.

So what are some sources to research legal definitions on your own? A source I often use is the local law libraries in a particular county. I’m licensed to practice law in only one state, so I know that I need to find a law library within that state and, more likely, the county I live in. I won’t get into why you want to look in the county law library in this article. Suffice it to say that the legal definitions may change if I go outside the county.

Another good source of non-lawyer to look in when searching for proper legal definitions is the official state code that the legislature or other governmental body has placed on their webpage. BE CAREFUL: some of the law on those web pages is old and out-of-date – which means it is no longer valid. What? There is invalid law on the internet. Yes, my friend, and reading bad law will not make you a good lawyer. When searching for the law on the internet, make sure you look for legal dates on the law. It should say something like, “enacted on July __, 2011.” That way you know that it is likely current.