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The Importance of Definitions in Law School

Here at WMU-Cooley fall classes are beginning. New students will quickly learn that first-term courses do not include Vocabulary 101. Rather, students are expected to master the law’s terminology on their own, by looking up every word in their assigned cases that they don’t understand.

The law is expressed in words, and those words need to be used with precision. This explains why Black’s Law Dictionary is the most widely cited law book in the world. In a sense, words are to lawyers as scalpels are to surgeons; a slip-up could cause great harm. That’s one reason why students need to be able to define the legal terms they encounter in their coursework and use them skillfully.

Another reason that definitions are important is that some definitions are akin to rules, in that they actually embody the law. Take, for example, this definition of “offer” encountered in the first week of Contracts (adapted from Restatement of Contracts, sec. 24).

“An offer is (1) a manifestation of (2) willingness to enter into (3) a bargain (4) made in such a way that the other party knows (5) that assent is all that is necessary (6) to close the deal.”

Look how much that one sentence tells us:

  1. Parties are bound by their outward manifestations regardless of their actual intent. (A bluff could be binding, for example.)

  2. A present willingness is required, not a mere suggestion. (“I’m considering such and so” won’t do.)

  3. A bargain—some sort of an exchange—is required. (Not, for example, a promise to make a gift.)

  4. An offeree must know of an offer in order to accept it. (Saying “I accept” without knowing the terms of a proposition may get you into trouble, but it won’t be contractual.)

  5. An offer must contain all essential terms, leaving nothing open for negotiation. (Take it or leave it.)

  6. Once acceptance occurs, the terms of the contract are fixed and cannot be changed unilaterally. (No “Oh, by the way” allowed.)

The ability to “unpack” a definition and master its parts is one of the skills law students need to develop. Fortunately, this skill becomes easier with practice. There will be plenty of opportunities.

Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Distinguished Emeritus Professor Otto Stockmeyer has retired from classroom teaching but maintains an interest in helping law students achieve their personal best. This blog post expands upon an observation made in his article “Reflections on Teaching the First Day of Contracts Class.” 

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