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Legalese Blonde — Is Legal Jargon Necessary?

By Maddy Buck, Esq. | Last updated on

Do you remember that scene from "Legally Blonde" (now more than 20 years old!) where Elle Woods throws a slew of legal jargon at her hair stylist's ex and convinces him to give up possession of their tiny dog? What was she talking about? Does interacting with legal concepts have to be that confusing?

Let's take you back. After Elle and her stylist Paulette Bonifanté bond over a manicure, they stomp off to confront Paulette's ex, who kept the couple's dog and trailer when they split. When Paulette's ex begins to intimidate her, Elle intervenes:

"Do you understand what subject matter jurisdiction is?" She asks Dewey Newcumbe, the ex.

"No!" he scoffs.

She continues, “Ya, I didn't think so. Well, due to 'habeas corpus' you and Ms. Bonifanté had a common-law marriage, which, heretofore, entitles her to what is legally referred to as … equitable division of the assets!"

Eventually, Paulette translates and she gets her tiny dog back. Elle's advocacy worked, but what was she even saying?

Can Someone Explain the Legalese, Please?

Let's break down the legal concepts from Elle's monologue:

Do you understand what subject matterjurisdiction is?

A court can't just hear any case — the case has to be in their "jurisdiction," both in terms of the subject and the parties involved in the case. If a court has "subject matter jurisdiction," it means they have power to hear that type of case.

Well, due to... habeas corpus,

"Habeas corpus" is a "writ," which is an old-school term for a type of legal document that allows you to get into court. The writ of habeas corpus allows a person who is imprisoned to have a court review whether they're lawfully imprisoned.

you and Ms. Bonifante had a common law marriage,

A common law marriage is when a state recognizes two people as married based on certain criteria even though they were never formally married.

which, heretofore, entitles her to what is legally referred to

Heretofore is just a fancy way of saying "up until now." It's not a legal concept

as "equitable division of the assets. "

In a divorce, most states divide property equitably, as opposed to equally, which means the focus is on what's fair to both parties.

If you're thinking that these concepts do not make sense together, you would be right. They do not.

So What Exactly Did Elle Woods Say?

If you were to translate Elle's legalese to plain English, you'd get this:

Are you aware that courts can only hear certain types of cases? Ya, I didn't think so. Well, because anyone who is in jail against their will can demand a hearing about why they're locked up, you and Ms. Bonifanté would be considered legally married in your state, which, up until now, means that she should get her fair share of the property you shared.

Come again? Elle's argument doesn't make sense, even when translated to plain English. But don't underestimate Elle Woods. She knew what she was doing. She used legalese to confuse and intimidate. And it worked. Though Elle Woods can be forgiven because she's only a first-year law student, that tactic is regrettably common among lawyers. But it doesn't mean the law has to be incomprehensible to the average person for it to be accurate and effective.

Legal stuff (judicial opinions, laws, contracts, etc.) doesn't have to be complicated to be official. In fact, for federal agencies, it's not even allowed! The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear, "plain language" whenever they communicate with the public. And at least one large company found that using plain language in their contracts made negotiations faster and easier. Confusing, flowery language is not a legal requirement. What's important is that the legal document is consistent with the law.

There are certainly many complex areas of law, but dealing with legal information doesn't have to be a nightmare. Findlaw Legal Forms & Services makes estate planning easy to understand and allows you to create your will, power of attorney, and health care directive and living will in a way that isn't intimidating. Elle just might say:

"What? Like it's hard?"

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