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Friday, April 20, 2007

So You Want to be a Lawyer? Post One. . .Vocabulary

The Keep Me in Suspense Team is pleased to begin a new series of law articles for writers from guest blogger, Carla Putman, lawyer and author. Her first book, Canteen Dreams, will release from Heartsong Presents in October 2007. Sandhill Dreams and Captive Dreams will follow in 2008.

You can learn more about her at her blog spot (The Law, Books, and Life): http://carasmusings.blogspot.com/ (You'll find a lot of great stuff there.)

Now, here's her post:

I inhaled legal novels long before I went to law school. John Grishom books didn’t scare me away from being an attorney. Nope, they made me even more interested in a questionable career as an attorney.

Now after four years of law school, one year clerking for a judge, and four years in private practice, I have a few tips to share with those of you who feel the need to add legal twists to your plots.

I can understand the need. More and more of us find our lives intersecting with the law when and where we least expect it. Sometimes it’s because of a car wreck. Other times because of something that happened at work: violence, an injury, harassment. Or it might be because you want to start a business. Get married. Have a will prepared. Adopt a child. Gain custody of a child. Avoid child support. On and on the list could go.

In this first post, I want to hit on one of the key areas – and it’s a simple one to fix – where I see authors miss the details. Vocabulary. Words have precise meanings and lawyers love them. So here are a couple to get us started. Use them correctly, and you’ll be light years ahead of other writers.

Prosecution: only criminal. Only the state or federal governments can prosecute crimes. Everything else is civil.

Defendant: can be criminal or civil.

Plaintiff: technically the state is the plaintiff in a criminal case, but it is usually referred to as the prosecution. Plaintiff is always the party brining the suit in a civil matter. In a civil matter there is NEVER a prosecutor.

Criminal: an alleged crime has been committed by the defendant and the prosecutor believes there is a strong enough case to warrant filing charges against the defendant. If convicted, the defendant could owe money in the form of restitution and spend time in jail, under house arrest, etc.

Civil: a complaint is filed by the Plaintiff against the Defendant for a wrong the Plaintiff believes was committed by the Defendant. If the Plaintiff prevails he/she/it will usually obtain money damages or an injunction to stop the behavior of the Defendant. Jail time is not an option (except in extremely rare cases like high child support arrearages, and then the child support prosecutor is the one pushing the case.)

These terms are just the tip of the iceberg, but if you use them correctly you are well on your way to adding authenticity to your legal scenes.

Disclaimer: This post is not to be used as legal advice. This is only to assist writers in writing scenes in their novels regarding the law.

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Anonymous Janice said...

Being a legal assistant for 20 years, causes me to appreciate your legal mind. The definitions were great, especially the last one. I loved how you just threw it in there - Disclaimer – every attorney or writer’s nightmare if they forget to incorporate it in their instructive writing.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Lee Carver said...

Thanks for these definitions, Carla. There are a couple more words I need to use correctly right now: words relating to inheritance. e.g., The executor of a will {executes, probates, ?} the will. Also, some 3 years after a will is {settled?}, what if the executor should discover a deed to property which was not {probated?} at the proper time? This is for a fictional work, not real life.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Angela Breidenbach said...

Hey Cara,
Your intro has your name spelled wrong:-) Thought you'd like to know.

I really liked getting these common definitions. I had no idea that civil and prosecution weren't used together.

I hope you'll do more definitions in the future.


6:32 PM  
Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thanks, Janice. Lee, I plan to address will issues, too. Maybe I'll move it up to my next post. I think I answer more questions about this area than anything else.

9:30 PM  

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