Key secret to bar success: jargon fluency

By Sara J. Berman 

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece on translating legal jargon into plain English – a power exercise for law students and new lawyers. Say it in Your own words: Translate and Reverse Engineer Legal Jargon to read More Effectively describes “legalese” as a foreign language.

The most successful law students often spend a lot of time in dictionaries as they complete 1L reading. They also make a lifelong habit of looking up new or unfamiliar terms.

Did you ever study a foreign language? If so, you know that it’s impossible to speak or write well without having a command of basic words that form the building blocks of sentences. People who learn second languages study vocabulary by looking up words, picking up additional words and expressions in context by reading, listening, and sometimes asking people (or Google) their meaning. We then use them repeatedly enough to express ourselves easily.

Words are the tools of our trade. Our profession requires such fluency. It’s also a key to bar success.

Why? Without a deep understanding of the terms that make up the rules and concepts you must master to pass the bar exam, it is nearly impossible to learn what you need to know in the first place. Fluency is also a pre-requisite to performing the level of analysis required to write effective passing responses to essays and performance tests. It also helps in eliminating wrong answers and reasoning to correct answers on the MBE.

General legal fluency also makes bar applicants sound like you know concepts even when you forget some detail, which inevitably happens in the heat of bar writing. Fluent writers typically still pass, even with a missing point here or there. Graders often cannot help being biased in favor of correct usage of terminology in well-written answers – and biased against answers that misuse key terms.

Let’s do a little quiz. Take ten minutes. Define the words below in plain English. Then, use each in a sentence. For “bonus points,” compare and contrast the terms in respective sentences. Think fast! Don’t look anything up, and don’t define jargon with more jargon!  

1) Homicide

2) Murder

3) Felony murder

4) Voluntary manslaughter

5) Involuntary manslaughter

If this was easy, excellent! If not, no worries. Start your fluency training today. Get comfortable defining every word of the headings and subheadings in the tables of contents of your casebooks. State them in plain English, simply enough for a very smart 16-year-old to understand. (More on the “very smart 16-year-old standard” in future columns!) Practice every day using at least a few terms in sentences and writing with them in practice exams.

Your goal should be terminology fluency in all bar-tested subjects, before bar review begins. Trust me, bar prep will be a lot easier when you have the basic building blocks. And, you will set yourself up for success –on the bar exam, in law practice, and as a lifelong learner!

Sara J. Berman is the director of Academic and Bar Success Programs at AccessLex Institute and the author of many books and articles on how to pass the bar exam.