A Cautionary Guide for Deciphering Legal Abbreviations and Acronyms – Jay Matheny
|Jackie M. “Jay” Matheny, Jr.
Attorney at Law
Denton Law Firm, PLLC
555 Jefferson Street
Paducah, KY 42001
Alphabet Soup for the Lay Person’s Soul :
A Cautionary Guide for Deciphering Legal Abbreviations and Acronyms
In this high-tech world in which we live, we are constantly inundated with abbreviations and acronyms. For example, in 2019, a normal text message exchange between friends might contain any number of acronyms like “LOL,” SMH,” or “YOLO.” Well, if you happen to interact with an attorney or the American legal system with any regularity, you are also likely to see or hear any number of legal abbreviations or acronyms. If you have ever been perplexed by any of these abbreviations or acronyms, you are not alone. Not only can these abbreviations and acronyms be confusing, they can also significantly affect your legal rights.
Anyone who has ever reviewed legal documents, in any capacity, will note that acronyms and abbreviations are everywhere. For example, if you have ever signed a contract, you might have seen the abbreviation “AAA” in the text of the document. To most people, the first thing that comes to mind when they see the abbreviation “AAA” is the American Automobile Association. However, unless your contract deals with something related to an automobile, the “AAA” that you are seeing in your contract most likely refers to the “American Arbitration Association” (which is a non-profit association whose purpose is to assist parties in resolving litigation through mediation and arbitration). The reason that this is important is that, if you see this abbreviation in your contract and you sign that contract, you may be subjecting yourself to mandatory, binding arbitration by an American Arbitration Association approved arbitrator (instead of trying to resolve the dispute through litigation, including a trial by jury).
Even more significant, however, is the fact that legal abbreviations and acronyms can often have more than one meaning even within the legal system. For example, if a lay person were to see the abbreviation “CD” on a legal document, their assumption might be that the document was referring to a compact disc. But, “CD” can have multiple meanings under the law. In the banking world, the abbreviation “CD” might refer to a certificate of deposit. However, in the realm of real estate (which often has close ties to the banking world), “CD” can also stand for closing disclosure – which is a document that details all of the funds that are to be disbursed at a real estate closing. Even more confusing is the fact that, if you are a criminal defendant, you would be pleased to see that your sentence was “CD” – conditionally discharged – by a court (meaning that you would not be required to serve a jail sentence imposed upon you by a court if you fully comply with the other terms of your sentence). So, unless you know the actual context in which the abbreviation “CD” is used, there is really no way of knowing what the abbreviation “CD” actually means. And, there are a number of other acronyms and abbreviations used in the American legal system that have multiple meanings. In short, the meanings of these abbreviations and acronyms depend almost entirely upon how they are used.
The takeaway from all of this is that, if you see an abbreviation or an acronym in a legal document of any variety, you cannot simply assume that you know what that abbreviation or acronym means on its face. The key is to know how that abbreviation or acronym is being used. And, while online or print resources (like Black’s Law Dictionary or The Bluebook) can be helpful in trying to decipher legal abbreviations and acronyms, they do not always give you a definitive answer. Again, context is key. With that said, the only real way of knowing what these abbreviations and acronyms mean is to ask a lawyer who can help you decipher these often confusing abbreviations and acronyms.