One-L Dictionary

The Library offers the following dictionary to assist new law students during the first few days of their law school experience. Within a couple of weeks, most of these words will become part of your regular vocabulary and you will have forgotten those first moments of panic when you thought everyone except you understood what was being said in class. We are not attempting to define the legal terms you will encounter in reading cases such as demurrer, summary judgment, or proximate cause. For that we refer you to the standard legal dictionaries, hornbooks, and your professors. But if you want to know what a hornbook is, what F.3d is, or what a parallel citation is, please read on.

While you can use this dictionary to locate individual words, it is brief enough for you to read through in its entirety. Please let us know if this 1L dictionary is helpful and if whether there are other terms you wish for us to include. You may e-mail your comments to us at

Act (e.g., Civil Rights Act): The product of a legislative body. An act may be a law about a particular subject such as the Clean Air Act. But "act" may also refer to the name of a bill. For example, the Working Families Flexibility Act is the name of a bill that was proposed in the 104th, 105th, 106th, and 107th Congress, but to date, has not been enacted into law.

Advance sheets: Updated pamphlets containing the most recently reported decisions of a court or several courts. Judicial decisions go through three different stages of printing: slip opinions, advance sheets, and final bound reporters. Opinions appearing in advanced sheets will often have the same volume and page number as they will have in the subsequently bound reporters (which are a collection of several advance sheets).

Annotated code: A version of a code, which in addition to the text of the law includes references to law review articles, other relevant statues or regulations, and cases discussing or interpreting a particular section of the code. The references to cases include brief summaries of the relevant points of law. The annotations are provided by the editors and are not a part of the official language of the code. United States Code Annotated, published by West, is an annotated version of the official United States Code published by the federal government. Most annotated codes are statutory. There are only a few annotated regulatory codes.

Appeal: The process by which a higher court reviews a ruling of a lower court. For example, in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court is the highest court and it hears appeals from the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Appellant: The party who initiates an appeal to a reviewing court. The appellant may be either the defendant or the plaintiff.

Appellate court: A court that hears appeals on issues of law from a lower court. Except in rare, specific circumstances, it is not a trial court.

Appellee: The party against whom an appeal is taken. The appellee may be either the plaintiff or the defendant.

Black letter law: The basic, standard principles of law that are generally known and free from doubt or dispute. Black letter law is not recorded in any one research source, nor is "black letter" a term you will find in most indices. Instead, you will need to research the specific area of law to determine the standard elements. Secondary sources may be your best source for finding the basic elements in a particular field of law.

Bluebook: A source published by the Harvard Law Review and other leading law reviews, which sets forth abbreviations and rules of citation for legal materials. It is a widely accepted standard in legal writing.

Case: A case may refer to a civil or criminal suit or action, or it may refer to the reported facts, procedural history, or the decision in an action. The terms case, judgment, ruling, opinion, and decision are often used interchangeably.

Citation: A reference that identifies a particular case, law review article, book, statute or other resource. For example, the citation for Roe v. Wade is 410 U.S. 959 (1973). The case appears in volume 410 of the official United States Reports beginning on page 959. The opinion was issued in 1973. 42 U.S.C. §1983 is the citation for civil rights legislation. It appears in title 42 of the United States Code at section 1983. See also parallel citation. The Bluebook and ALWD provide rules on proper citation format.

Basic citations to know:

  • U.S. - United States Reports, the official reporter for US Supreme Court cases.
  • S.Ct - Supreme Court Reporter, an unofficial reporter of US Supreme Court cases.
  • L.Ed.2d - Lawyers' Edition, an unofficial reporter of US Supreme Court cases.
  • U.S.C. - United States Code, the official version of the federal statutory code.
  • U.S.C.A. & U.S.C.S., two unofficial, annotated versions of the federal statutory code.
  • C.F.R. - Code of Federal Regulations, the codified subject arrangement of current regulations issued by agencies of the executive branch of the federal government.
  • F., F.2d, and F.3d - Federal Reporter, first second and third series. This is the reporter for opinions of the federal courts of appeals. Not all of the federal circuit courts' opinions are published.
  • F. Supp. and F. Supp.2d - The Federal Supplement is the reporter for published opinions of the federal district courts, which are trial courts. Most opinions of the district courts are not published.

Cite: noun: Short for citation; verb: To give the citation for a particular item.

Civil: The law that applies to private rights as opposed to the law that applies to criminal matters. Civil law may also refer to the body of law developed from Roman law and used in places such as Louisiana, continental Europe, and in many other countries outside of the English-speaking world.

Code: A systematic subject compilation of laws. Statutes and regulations are initially published chronologically in the order they are enacted. A code compiles all the statutes or regulations pertaining to a particular subject (e.g., the California Penal Code or Title 26 of the United States Code containing statutes relating to taxation).

Common law: The law developed over centuries and derived from judicial opinions rather than from legislative enactments. For example, the laws relating to negligence have been developed by judicial decisions over several hundred years. In modern times these basic principles are often incorporated into statutory laws. (Note, the United States, the United Kingdom, and most Commonwealth countries, have a common law system, whereas many other countries have a civil law system.)

Controversy: A dispute or case.

Court/court (upper case/lower case): When the word "court" by itself is capitalized in a sentence, it is generally referring to either the United States Supreme Court or to the court to which the document is being submitted. Lower case "court" refers to courts in a general sense. When naming a specific court, such as the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the word court is also capitalized.

Criminal law: The public law that deals with crimes and their prosecution.

Decision: An authoritative ruling (such as a judgment) that a court makes after a consideration of fact and/or law.

Defendant: The person against whom a lawsuit or prosecution has been brought. In a civil suit this is the person from whom a plaintiff seeks relief. In a criminal action, the defendant is the accused.

Descriptive Word Index: A bibliographic tool used for finding cases by subject in a print digest. Digests are the key print source for categorizing cases by subject. In the West digest system, the subjects are referred to as topics and each topic is broken down into sub-topics that are each assigned a “key number.” Once you have a number relevant to your work, you could look up the topic and key number in a digest to find all of the cases that the publisher’s editors believe are on point. You may know a relevant topic and key number from the headnote of a relevant case. Otherwise, the best way to identify the topic and key number for your research is to use the Descriptive Word Index for the digest, which is located in several volumes either at the end or the beginning of the digest. A Descriptive Word Index is organized like any other index – you would search under general terms that describe your research problem. This should lead you to an appropriate topic and key number.

Digests: Finding tools that provide subject access to cases. Digests are usually a multi-volume publication and the entries are arranged according to a subject outline. Among other things, entries contain case summaries.

Dissent: A judge's disagreement with the majority opinion of a court. Appellate court cases are heard by a panel of judges, which can vary in number depending on the jurisdiction. A judge who disagrees with a majority’s ruling will often write a dissenting opinion explaining his or her reason for disagreement.

Et seq.: Latin meaning "and the following." It is used in statutory citations such as 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. to indicate that the referenced statute begins at section 2000e and continues through an unspecified number of subsequent sections. Note that Rule 3.4(b) of the Bluebook prohibits the use of et seq. However, you will see it quite often in judicial opinions.

Headnote: An editorial enhancement appearing at the beginning of a reported decision, which consists of summaries that state a decision's principles or ruling. Headnotes are not written by judges and are not part of the opinion itself, rather they are written by the publisher’s editors. In the West system, the headnote includes the topic and key numbers and it contains the same language as the digest summary of the case. The West digest system provides a compilation of these headnotes by subject.

Hornbook: A general reference to the series of treatises published by Thomson West or to other introductory texts written primarily for students. A hornbook addresses a particular area of law in summary form as compared to a law review article, which may provide a critical analysis of cutting edge issues, or a casebook, which often includes many reprints of court opinions. Hornbooks are often a good starting point for research, and students often use the hornbooks pertaining to the first year topics. The majority of the Library's hornbooks are kept on reserve at the Circulation Desk.

Index to Legal Periodicals & Books: Also known as ILP, this source has indexed articles in law reviews since the nineteenth century and it has indexed books since 1994. In addition to a subject/author index, it has a table of cases and a table of statutes, which allow you to locate articles on a particular case or statute. The print volumes are not cumulative so you may need to check several volumes to find the relevant articles. If you are looking for articles about a particular case, you should check all volumes since that case was decided and not just the volume published at the time of the decision (since authors will continue to write about major cases for years after the opinion was written).

Judgment: A court's formal ruling or decision. It may also refer to the official document embodying the decision.

Key number: In the West digest system, each topic of law is outlined and each sub-topic is numbered. These numbers are referred to as key numbers. Other digest systems number the sub-topics as well, but the "key number" phrase is a copyright of Thomson West.

Looseleafs: A frequently supplemented tool that specializes in a particular area of law and often contains primary legal sources, finding aids, and secondary source material. There are two major kinds of looseleaf services: cumulating and interfiling. Cumulating services add additional pages at the end of the set as new cases are published or new materials are developed. Interfiling services are updated by replacing superseded documents with revised pages.

LegalTrac: An index of periodical literature that indexes most English-language legal periodical literature from 1980 to the present. Since this is an index, the full-text of the journals are not in LegalTrac. Among other things, you can search for records in LegalTrac by author, title, subject, and keyword. You will retrieve citations to articles (author, title of article, volume, journal, subject descriptors of the article) which can then be used to locate the article in full-text. LegalTrac, a Harvard e-resource, is available online to members of the Harvard community. On Lexis and Westlaw, this source is called "Legal Resource Index" or LRI.

Nutshell: A general reference to the series of treatises published by Thomson West. Like the hornbook series, each Nutshell in its series addresses a particular area of law in a straightforward, summary fashion. Nutshells are written primarily for a student audience but they may also be of value to anyone seeking an overview of a doctrinal area. Sample titles are Legal Research in a Nutshell and Contracts in a Nutshell. Most of the Nutshells are on Reserve at the Circulation Desk in Langdell.

Official publications: Cases, regulations and statutes are published electronically or in book format in either official or unofficial publications. Official publications are those that have been authorized by statute or governmental ruling. Unofficial publications, which have not been so sanctioned, often have additional research aids to help the user. For example, the Supreme Court Reporter is an unofficial version of U.S. Supreme Court opinions while the U.S. Reports is an official source. Citation rules may require references to both official and unofficial versions or only one version. The Bluebook provides information about official versus unofficial publications.

Online sources: Two major online sources for legal materials are Westlaw and LexisNexis. The Internet is also becoming an increasingly important source for legal information although it can present additional problems of accuracy and currency. Many other commercial (fee-based) online sources are also available.

Opinion: The reasons given for a court's judgment, finding or conclusion. When a professor says "What is the opinion of the court?" she is referring to this majority opinion. A concurring opinion is by a judge who agrees with the ruling but has a different reasoning from the majority. Dissenting opinions are by judges who disagree with the ruling itself. Opinions may or may not be published.

Panel: In reference to a court, it is a group of judges (usually three judges) among those sitting on an appellate court who hear a particular appeal. An en banc panel is one that is made up of all the judges from that court, as opposed to the regular quorum.

Parallel citation: A reference to a document’s citation when the document is printed in more than one source. For example, the opinions of the United States Supreme Court appear in a print format in the United States Reports (the official reporter), the United States Supreme Court Reporter (an unofficial reporter), and Lawyers Edition (another unofficial reporter). The text of the opinion will be the same in each of these printed formats although there will be different editorial notes. The citation for a case will be different in each reporter due to how the editors arrange the cases. For example, Roe v. Wade can be found at 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct 705 and 35 L.Ed2d 147. The citations are referred to as parallel citations. They reference the same document as published in different books.

Plaintiff: The person or entity that initiates a lawsuit against another.

Pocket part: A paper-back pamphlet inserted into a book through a slit in its cover (usually the back cover), that updates the information in the book itself. Pocket parts are most often found in statutory codes, digests, and encyclopedias. It is very important that you check the pocket part if you are using a volume that has one. The pocket part in digests will give you additional cases on your topic. Pocket parts in codes will tell you whether your code section has been amended or repealed since the publication of the main volume.

Precedent: A judicial decision that a court should follow when deciding a similar case. To serve as a precedent for a current case, a prior decision must have a similar legal issue and a similar factual scenario. Our common law system is based upon precedent as courts seek to decide current cases on the basis of legal principles established in prior similar or analogous cases.

Primary sources: The actual law itself whether constitutional, statutory, administrative (regulations) or case law. The United States Code is a primary source. A book discussing and explaining the code is a secondary source.

Regulation: A rule or order issued by a government agency to carry out the intent of the law. Regulations are authorized by a statute and regulations generally provide more detail on a particular subject than the authorizing statute will. For example, the statutes on public accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §12181 et seq., are supplemented by regulations issued by the Department of Justice. These regulations, which provide additional definitions and requirements, can be found at 28 C.F.R. § 36.101 et seq. The Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) is the subject compilation of current federal regulations. United States Government regulations first appear chronologically in the Federal Register.

Reporter: Court opinions from a particular court or group of courts are published in books referred to as reporters. Reporters may be official or unofficial.

Ruling: An official or authoritative determination, statement, or interpretation (as by a judge on a question of law). In administrative law, a ruling is an interpretation or decision by an administrative agency.

Secondary source: A source that explains, analyzes or interprets primary source information. Examples are law review articles, encyclopedias, and books. These sources may lead you to key primary sources as well as other secondary sources.

Slip opinion: An individual judicial opinion that is published separately, either in print or online, shortly after it is issued by the court. Judicial decisions go through three different stages of printing: slip opinions, advance sheets, and final bound reporters. Slip opinions are reprinted in advance sheets.

Statute: A law enacted by the legislative branch of a government. Federal statutes are published chronologically in the Statutes at Large and are then codified by subject in the United States Code.

Supreme Court: On the federal level, the highest court in the judicial branch of government. It exercises final appellate jurisdiction in cases involving federal law and it has original jurisdiction in a limited number of matters. On the state level, Supreme Court often, but not always, refers to the highest appellate court or the court of last resort in that state. Notably, the New York Supreme Court is a lower court, while the highest court is called the Court of Appeals.

Table of cases: A list of cases appearing at the beginning of a periodical index that provides the name and citation of articles written about a particular case. In a digest, a table of cases can help you identify a case’s citation when you know only one or both of the parties' names.

Title: In reference to a code (such as the United States Code), the word title refers to the broad subject heading under which a law is classified. For example, the United States Code is organized into fifty titles, each title pertaining to a particular subject. 18 U.S.C. § 925A (2000) (a provision added to the U.S. Code as part of the Brady Act) is the citation for section 925A of Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedure). In reference to an act, (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act), the word title refers to a large portion or subset of the act. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is codified in Title 42 of the United States Code. But here, Title VII refers to a portion of the public law that appears below the Roman numeral seven in the Act's original Statutes at Large version.

Topic: In regard to the West digest system, the word topic refers to the subject category in which an issue is placed. The West digest system is composed of over 400 topics arranged alphabetically from Abandonment to Zoning. Each topic is divided into numbered sections (called key number sections) corresponding to specific points of law for that topic.

Treatises: A text that provides critical, interpretative, evaluative or foundational material on an area of law. A treatise is often less detailed and critical than a law review article, but more in-depth than a legal encyclopedia entry.

Unannotated code: A version of a code that contains the text of the law, but does not reference law review articles, case summaries, or other relevant statutes or regulations.

Unofficial publications: Cases, regulations and statutes that are published without statutory authority designating them as an official version. The language, quality, and accuracy of unofficial reports do not differ from official texts, however, unofficial versions may contain research aids (such as headnotes or case annotations) that are not available in official versions.