November 29, 2013
Black’s Law Dictionary may be a staple for students in law school still learning legalese, but does the book’s usefulness survive graduation? That is, is Black’s Law Dictionary valuable to practitioners as more than a doorstop or a bookshelf fixture with which to impress clients?
Let me respond with another question: how could a book that defines virtually every legal term not be useful to an active practitioner?
However, if you’re still wondering about just how Black’s is indeed useful beyond law school, we’ve compiled a list of the top seven ways that practitioners can make use of it in their practice.
1. Look up an unfamiliar legal term
Believe it or not, attorneys don’t always have all of the answers. Invariably, even if your practice never deviates outside of a limited area of law, you may still come across a term that you are unable to define with 100% certainty. Resolving this problem is one of Black’s most basic functions, and it does it very well.
2. Explain legal terms to clients or other laypeople
Attorneys can sometimes have difficulty explaining legal terms to laypeople such as clients because it’s easy to forget that these terms are not a part of day-to-day life for the vast majority of the populace. After all, all of the other people that we deal with as attorneys – judges, clerks, other attorneys, etc – are all (hopefully) familiar with the legal terms that are at issue in the dispute.
Black’s is a great resource for finding legal definitions that your average person unversed in legalese can understand. Even if you don’t feel comfortable reading the definition to your client straight out of the book, Black’s still allows you to familiarize yourself with an easy-to-digest definition that will make explaining terms to your client much easier.
3. Brief writing
Black’s is one of the most widely cited secondary resources used by courts for defining legal terms. Thus, using Black’s enables you to not only know how the court will, in all likelihood, define a term, but also allows you to, by citing it in your brief, place the term’s definition in the context that is most favorable to your argument.
In certain types of case, legal definitions matter more than anything else. In those cases, foregoing Black’s is a luxury you can’t afford.
4. For CLEs on unfamiliar topics
We all have to do CLEs to maintain our license to practice law. And, unless you have access to a particularly comprehensive catalog of CLEs – not to mention a perfectly-aligned schedule allowing you to attend just the right ones – you’ll likely find yourself enrolled in courses that have very little bearing on your practice. And as a consequence, you may find yourself surrounded by terms that you have only a passing familiarity with
You have two choices: you can mentally check-out and sit there just long enough to get credit for the CLE, or you can engage with the material and actually try to learn something from the course.
If you choose the latter option, then Black’s is almost a necessity in saving you from feeling disoriented by these uncharted waters.
5. When delving into new areas of law
Along these same lines, Black’s can offer a reliable resource in your actual practice in bringing you up-to-speed in unknown legal territory.
Whether you are in this unexplored region because you are expanding your practice and you are using Black’s to find your footing, or because a case in your normal practice area took a detour, Black’s offers a reliable roadmap to ensure that you are never lost.
6. Double check your pronunciation
The law uses Latin terms on a regularly basis. Unfortunately, Latin language classes are generally not offered by law schools as part of their standard curriculum.
Along with actually defining the Latin term in question, Black’s offers a pronunciation guide for each term (and, if you’re using one of its mobile versions, there’s the option of an audio pronunciation). Thus, Black’s gives you the confidence of knowing that you are speaking the term correctly – even if no one else in the room is.
7. Kick off your legal research process
Finally, Black’s can offer a good first step in your legal research process.
If you are looking up an unfamiliar term, Black’s provides enough ammunition to get started with researching the term in greater depth by providing related terms within the definition itself and by citing to other secondary sources that provide a gateway to more pertinent resources. If you are using an electronic version of Black’s, you will also find West Key Numbers within the definition that brings you directly to cases relating to the defined term.
There are likely additional uses for Black’s Law Dictionary beyond these seven listed; but these seven alone make apparent how much of a staple that Black’s is in any law practice.