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Why do lawyers refer to long documents as briefs and
18-year olds as infants? Why do they use so much Latin when so few of their
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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Word of the Week


A brief is a written argument that is submitted to a court as part of a lawsuit, and it is a fair question to ask why something called a brief is usually anything but. Granted, brief is related to the Latin brevis, meaning short. Its immediate ancestor, however, is the noun breve, which refers to a letter issued by the Pope, less solemn than a papal bull, but authoritative nonetheless. This is where we get the legal sense of brief, which was originally synonymous with writ, an old-fashioned term for a document that initiates a lawsuit.

So a brief is not by definition a short document, but it doesn’t have to be long one either. In America, up to the early twentieth century, legal briefs typically consisted of just a few pages of legal citations and argument. In the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon, a prominent Boston lawyer named Louis Brandeis caused a sensation by submitting a 113-page brief, bristling not only with case citations, but with medical and legal statistics to support his argument. After Brandeis won the Muller case; courtrooms across the country were flooded with briefs resembling Homeric epics – they became known as Brandeis briefs.


Stephens said...

Additional definitions are give at legalglossary.ca

Adam Freedman said...

Thanks for the comment! Yes, I should have mentioned that "brief" has a different sense in other English-speaking countries, including Canada. In England and Wales, a "brief" is really an instruction from a solicitor to barrister, not a memorandum of law for the court.

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