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Let's talk shop

14/05/2013

Learn legalspeak in 10 minutes! OK, so we can't make you fluent, but what we can do is introduce you to the most useful words you'll need to know to be a lawyer.


Lawyers love linguistic larks. With language we can debate and enact our laws, so it makes sense that lawyers - with their extended legal knowledge and leanings towards pedantry - see language as a useful tool that can destroy an opponent, seal a deal and impress colleagues.

Lawyers have strict, usually unwritten, rules on the acceptable behaviour they expect from you as a prospective colleague. As well as walking the walk in your well-heeled Italian footwear, you'll be required to talk the talk from the word go. If you stroll into your interview and start gushing about how much you want to work for the 'company', you'll be shown the door. Solicitors work in firms, not companies; the term 'firm' is simply more precise because it refers to the fact that the organisation is a partnership. This is just one example of lawyers' lingo that we shall be exploring below (although this is not a comprehensive lexicon and if you come across other confounding words, you can always check our glossary).

Money talks

If you want to be a business lawyer, you need to be able to talk business. Corporate solicitors talk in their own language; it is shared with a select group of bankers and executives but is largely incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Among the hundreds of commercial terms that this article can only dip its toe in, is the concept of the FTSE (pronounced 'footsie'), which stands for the Financial Times Stock Exchange - a company specialising in calculating how valuable other companies are. The FTSE 100 is a list of the 100 companies with the highest stock value on the London Stock Exchange (LSE). Commercial lawyers aim high, but before they pick up work for FTSE 100 clients they may also advise AIM clients: the Alternative Investment Market is designed for companies with shorter trading histories than those listed on the LSE.

Another concept important to float at this stage in our trippy terminology tour is that of the initial public offering (IPO). The IPO is the point at which a company allows the public to buy its shares; the more imaginative lawyers call this a flotation, because the company is said to be 'floating' on the stock market.

If you're really taking your legal career by the horns, you'll no doubt be reading the business press. Thus, you will (hopefully) be fully versed in idiomatic terms such as the difference between a 'bull' and a 'bear' market. The former term refers to a market that is beefed up by rising share prices and trader optimism, while the latter refers to grizzly market conditions when shares are experiencing a downturn. The terms refer to the ways that the respective beasts attack: a bull thrusts its horns up (the market is on the rise), while a bear swipes its paw down (the market is falling).

Not all are in the Oxford English Dictionary

There are thousands of terms in common usage across the legal profession that may or may not be known by those who had to settle for a lesser career. For example, every lawyer knows that ECHR stands for the European Convention on Human Rights (adopted in 1950 by members of the Council of Europe - the 47-member-state body that is charged with protecting human rights and the rule of law in Europe). Slightly confusingly, the ECHR also refers to the European Court of Human Rights - let context be your guide! The legal world is full of such acronyms; just ask any one of the 30,000 lawyers who are members of the IBA, or International Bar Association.

As well as your LPC, BPTC, GDL (or its more archaic, robotic brother, the CPE), you'll also need to be familiar with the SRA, or Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is the organisation whose job it is to ensure that solicitors in England and Wales are towing the line. The SRA also decides whether you can become admitted to the roll of solicitors - and they'll certainly be concerned if you partake in satanic ritual abuse (which is what the acronym means to a police officer, apparently). Barristers are regulated by the BSB, which is the abbreviation for the Bar Standards Board - not nineties pop troupe Backstreet Boys.

But you'll also hear a lot of technical acronyms. PQE (or post-qualification experience) is the number of years a solicitor has been practising after completing his or her training contract. An NQ is a newly qualified solicitor; despite being qualified, NQs do not stop learning - as is the nature of the legal profession, all lawyers must fulfil a CPD (or continuing professional development) quota which involves attending courses or conferences over a set period of time. We're assured that some lawyers love paella, although LLP after a firm's name usually means limited liability partnership, which gives the partners of the firm a level of personal protection against financial problems the firm may come up against. This ensures said partners can live long and prosper.

Oh and BTW, firms are always keen to big up their CSR drivers: most sizeable firms have a corporate social responsibility programme to ensure that they have a positive impact on, for example, their local communities.

All talk and no trousers

That said, the term 'CSR' unfortunately fits into the category of management speak. Roughly translated, CSR is the term law firms use to describe the work they do to boost their image and help show that they are not a big, evil corporation. But instead of calling a spade a spade, some time ago a senior partner with creative flair threw the term up a flagpole to see if anyone saluted it. All the major corporations and law firms sounded their bugles and hollered "sir, yes sir!" (In case you were wondering, the flag metaphor is standard management speak.)

As well as incomprehensible turns of phrase invented by law firms, you might want to touch base with one of a thousand hilarious clichés. Moving forward, we invite you to consider your work-life balance which you can only do if you think outside the box and don't suffer from a skills gap, moving forward. That latter, useful phrase can be tacked onto anything, so, moving forward, don't fall into the trap of using it (too often). National firm Eversheds must have a special mention here though: in October 2007 the firm's graduate recruitment drive coined a groundbreaking lexicon comprising key skills spliced together to form whole new words. The firm was on the look out for winnomats (winning diplomats) and proactilopers (proactive developers)...

Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Restrictive Covenant

If you thought it was only big businesses that needed big words, think again. High-street lawyers and those specialising in, say, housing, employment and family law, also work with their own jargon. Housing solicitors talk in terms of HCRs (the optional home condition report) and EPCs (energy performance certificates), and they previously had to get to grips with the now-suspended HIPs (home information packs). And there are all sorts of curious terms to do with land law in general. Although a restrictive covenant sounds like something Indiana Jones might go in search of, it's actually a rule forbidding the owner of a property from doing something such as altering the property's appearance.

Wills throw up a whole new scroll of legal jargon: from executors (the person who administers a will) to chattels (personal possessions) and testators (the person making his/her will). However, before your will becomes relevant, you could find yourself somewhere between living and dead (ie, unemployed), in which case you might want to bring a claim against a former employer. You'll need an ET1, which might look alien but is actually just a form to lodge your complaint with the employment tribunal - a special kind of court where employment issues are heard. There are plenty of laws that protect employees' rights so that they're not duped when their company changes hands, for example TUPE regulations - or the transfer of undertakings (protection of employment).

Happy talk

Our trip through different terminology may have been light of heart, but there is a serious message: it is important to be able to speak professionally, clearly and using the correct terminology. Recruiters and partners will be able to tell that you know what you're letting yourself in for if you use the words they use. But there's a difference between sounding erudite and coming off as a pompous pest.

To give yourself a good grounding in commercial legal terms, read our Burning Question section - which is updated every week. It never hurts to take a look at the financial and business press too. And remember that when you arrive at your interview you're being observed the moment you meet the vice president of first impressions - although some firms still call them the receptionist.

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