Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FREE LEGAL DEFINITIONS

When I began law school (…back in the 1990s) it was expected that a law student would purchase a legal dictionary to be used when reading cases. There were always those terms you needed to look up when reading cases….legalese, Latin, obscure, and just plain old-fashioned terminology. It is still true that law students need to locate these definitions to fully understand their case law reading. However, there are so many easier options today than carting around a print volume and fumbling through the pages to understand what in the world res ipsa loquitur” means.

One free source to use is Wex, a collaboratively-edited legal dictionary sponsored and hosted by the Legal Information Institute (LII) at the Cornell Law School. Wex entries are created and edited by legal experts, specifically for “law novices.” Back in 2010, LII made a decision to partner with Nolo and made Wex even more comprehensive and easy to understand, including Nolo’s Plain-English Legal Dictionary definitions in each Wex entry. Nolo is an advocate for easy accessibility to the law for all; so this seems like a great match.  Notice, for example, the entry for “in loco parentis”; you’ll see Wex’s community-gathered definition listed first, followed by Nolo’s. Not a bad idea to hear the term explain in more than one way, right?



Most students will find the Wex “all pages” the easiest to use as you don't need to be concerned with variant spellings. There is also a search function you can use if you know the exact spelling of your term.

One caveat – Wex is not a substitute for using Black’s Law Dictionary when you are doing research, however.  Black’s is the most widely used and most definitive legal dictionary in the United States, and has been cited as a secondary legal authority in several U.S. Supreme Court cases. That being said, Wex is a great resource when studying/reading cases. 

If you are logged on to westlaw.com, of course, you may want to go directly to Black’s Law Dictionary, which gives you the entire contents of the 9th edition online.

For the law student on the go, perhaps you might want to consider one of these mobile apps for Black's:

So, entering law students: before you go out and buy a print legal dictionary before your first year, consider your options.