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Explanation of Common Legal Phrases

The practice of law is full of often archaic and hard to understand phrases, which while familiar to attorneys, are often the same as Latin (sometimes literally!) to anyone else. We have compiled the following list of commonly used phrases and words to assist you as you navigate your case. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list nor legal advice, but is intended as a quick reference guide).

  • Attorney vs. Lawyer—the words attorney and lawyer are interchangeable and mean the exact same thing. Another less common word for attorney is “esquire,” which is commonly abbreviated “esq.” after the names of attorneys (ex. John Smith, Esq.). Attorneys are also sometimes called “counsel” or “counselor.”
  • Petitioner vs. Respondent—the individual labeled as “petitioner” in a lawsuit is the person who initiates the action (or “petitions” the court), while the “respondent” is the individual against whom a lawsuit is filed (and who must “respond” to the petition).
  • Plaintiff vs. Defendant—similar to petitioner and respondent, “plaintiff” and “defendant” are titles or labels for the individuals involved in a lawsuit. A “plaintiff” is the individual who initiates the lawsuit, while a defendant is an individual against whom a lawsuit is filed (and who must “defend” against the lawsuit).
  • Pro Se—“pro se” is the term used to describe an individual that has elected to represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney. It roughly translates from Latin to mean “for oneself” or “on one's own behalf.”
  • Pleadings—the term “pleadings” is typically used as a catch-all term for all documents that are filed with the court such as complaints, petitions, motions, and the like.
  • Drafting—the term “drafting” is used interchangeably with “writing” and is often used in the context of pleadings (ex. the attorney is drafting a pleading in your case).
  • Mediation—mediation is conducted by a mediator (typically an attorney), who is a third-party neutral and helps the opposing sides attempt to negotiate a settlement. Traditionally, the opposing parties are in separate rooms and the mediator will go back and forth between the two sides, although the parties may occasionally be all in the same room.
  • Collaborative Divorce—collaborative divorce refers to a style of divorce where the spouses negotiate an agreement in a cooperative manner. Typically, each spouse has an attorney to represent his or her best interests, but it is typical for the spouses to jointly retain other professionals such as a financial neutral or a therapist to help them navigate the process. The parties sit down with the specialists to discuss and resolve disagreements without the hostility often associated with a divorce. For more on collaborative divorce, visit Collaborative Divorce Nashville.
  • Scheduling Order—a scheduling order can be entered by the judge or can be agreed upon by the parties in an action and sets deadlines by which certain things in the case must be completed. Scheduling Orders are used to keep a case progressing and moving forward.
  • Pendente Lite—a Latin term meaning “pending the litigation,” a pendente lite order is a temporary order in place until a final hearing. This may include a temporary parenting plan, child support, or alimony.
  • Status Hearing—a status hearing is often held in order for the court to have an idea of the status of the case and determine if a scheduling order may be necessary to keep the case progressing.
  • Discovery—as part of a lawsuit, each party has the right to engage in discovery in order to gain more information and evidence about the contested issues. Discovery can take a variety of forms including Interrogatories, Requests for Production of documents, and Depositions. Discovery typically has strict deadlines by which a party must answer the discovery requests.
  • Interrogatories—Interrogatories are written discovery questions, which must be answered under oath.
  • Requests for Production of Documents—Requests for Production of Documents are another form of discovery that contains requests that certain documents or other evidence relevant to a case be provided to the opposing party.
  • Depositions—Depositions are considered an oral, or non-written, form a discovery, in which an individual is asked questions under oath.

Be sure to consult your attorney if you do not understand a particular phrase or term. Part of an attorney's role is to help educate his or her clients about the legal system and to ensure that the client is knowledgeable about his or her matter and the associated proceedings.

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