Most of the lawyers portrayed in television, film, and fiction are litigators. While on-screen lawyers are usually shown in the courtroom, most actual civil litigators spend most of their time in their offices, conducting pre-trial discovery and writing motions, briefs and correspondence. Litigation is described as "the act or process of bringing or contesting a legal action in court." An innumerable number of civil issues are subject to litigation, but some of the most commonly litigated issues involve business disputes, contracts, the environment, employment, personal injury, and real estate. For example, a civil litigator might represent a plaintiff who has been harmed by a large corporation's improper disposal of toxic waste or a defendant in a suit to determine the boundaries between neighboring pieces of real property.
Litigators dedicate a substantial amount of their time to preparing for trial, even though the vast majority of civil cases end in settlement. They do this because they know that a certain level of trial preparation can help them attain a favorable settlement. As Christina Kelly '98, an insurance defense litigator at Polsinelli Shughart PC notes, "All of your effort and preparation from day one is with an eye to walking into the courtroom. When you're researching and analyzing an issue in the beginning of a case, you are already forecasting, 'If I had to go to in to court tomorrow and argue this case to a judge, what are our chances of success?' That kind of guides what you do. There's no better way to settle a case than preparing it for trial."
Civil litigation can provide attorneys with a great deal of satisfaction. Because each case is different, civil litigation practice is exciting and provides ample opportunity for attorneys to be creative. Litigators like that they feel they are helping their clients in concrete ways and that their practice exposes them to a wide variety of subjects. "I think the most rewarding thing is that I'm constantly diving into areas of information and education that I never thought I would," says Justin Gingery '99, who represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases. "There's not a day that goes by when I don't learn something, and a lot of times it has nothing to do with the law ... I learn things even in the automotive world or the engineering world, for example." Litigation can also be a challenge because crises inevitably rise that require immediate attention, matters can take years to resolve, and materials that took many hours to prepare are often never used. This is all outweighed, litigators note, by the sense of fulfillment that comes from winning or successfully settling a case.
To prepare for a civil litigation practice, students are advised to take classes in the substantive areas of law in which they wish to litigate. In addition, a basic accounting course, such as Accounting for Lawyers, provides a background for litigators to analyze and calculate damages, a universal aspect of civil cases.
Of course, evidence, procedure, trial advocacy, and writing classes provide a background that is fundamental to civil litigation as well.
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
Good civil litigators know the rules of evidence like the back of their hands, as well as the rules unique to each judge before which they appear. They also have strong advocacy skills—both oral and written—and can communicate equally well with clients, expert witnesses, opposing counsel, and juries. Furthermore, since litigators often work on cases as a team, it is important that they are able to work with others. Attention to detail is also advantageous, as litigators must use all the facts they can to advocate creatively on behalf of their clients.
In most cases, trial preparation begins with discovery, which is the process of gathering evidence. Preparing and responding to discovery requests takes up a substantial amount of a civil litigator's time. Civil litigation attorneys may use document requests, depositions, interrogatories, and other discovery devices to help them determine the facts and develop their case theory. Trial preparation also involves legal research, writing briefs and memos, and filing and arguing motions. In addition to trial preparation, litigators attend meetings, draft letters and pleadings, and speak with clients about their cases. At large firms, attorneys who are in their first few years of practice usually conduct research, review documents, and write memos. Even though they may not appear in court during their first several years on the job, they have the opportunity to be part of high-profile cases and to learn from a group of experienced attorneys. Frequently, litigators are required to travel to conduct interviews, meet with clients, or appear in court.
Skills often found in litigators:
Working at a legal office that handles litigation — whether a large firm, small firm, or government agency — is a good stepping stone for students who hope to become litigators. Many prominent litigation firms hire attorneys through a summer associate program. Often, but not always, they recruit summer associates during on-campus interviews in the fall. Competitive candidates will have a strong academic record, an interest in litigation, and the ability to write clearly and concisely, as demonstrated by an effective writing sample. Additionally, as plaintiff's attorney Ingrid Evans '95 notes, "Work for non-profits and government agencies can help you find work in plaintiff's firms because it shows where your passion lies."
Participating in any of the below-listed activities will not only offer you valuable insight into the legal system and the practice of family law, but will put you at a competitive advantage in your post-graduate job search.
Civil litigators work in a variety of settings. Large and mid-size law firms often handle many different types of litigation, and attorneys at these firms are typically divided into practice groups that focus on specific areas of the law. Litigators at mid-size and large firms usually work in a specific department at the firm that is devoted to litigation. Litigators also work as solo practitioners or in small boutique firms that specialize in only one or two types of cases. Many non-profit lawyers litigate cases on behalf of underrepresented clients, either on an individual basis or as a class action case. Some attorneys and law firms devote their entire practice to appeals, since these can be exceedingly complicated. Many government attorneys also engage in litigation — almost all government entities also employ attorneys who litigate civil matters on behalf of the government from time to time.
Some businesses — most often corporations, insurance companies, and financial institutions — have in-house counsel that either directly undertake litigation or supervise the work of outside firms that the business has hired to conduct litigation on its behalf. Generally, this type of business will not hire entry-level attorneys; a few years of experience with a private litigation firm can make it much easier to find a job "in-house." Although it is less common, some non-profit organizations have their own attorneys who handle litigation for them. More often, though, these organizations hire outside law firms or pro bono counsel for this purpose.
A civil litigator's clients depend on the type of litigation he or she specializes in. Businesses often hire large firms to represent them in litigation, while individuals are more likely to seek representation from a solo practitioner, a small firm, or a nonprofit firm. Most civil litigators represent either plaintiffs or defendants exclusively.