GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006
Litigation is the practice area everybody knows about—we see it most nights of the week on television. Apparently it involves fancy cars, high-end clothes, and all of the latest technological devices known to man.
In reality, the true meaning of litigation goes much deeper. Litigation is the willingness to fight someone else’s battle. It is not for the faint-hearted or someone who is not a people person. It is constantly stressful and competitive. It is doing for a stranger, called a client, what the first litigator, Aaron, did for his brother, Moses: becoming a spokesperson for someone else’s cause, all the while treating that stranger as your brother and his cause as your own. It is knowing and desiring all of the virtues of being a trial lawyer (we tend to believe we’re the cream of the crop) and all of the nobility embedded in this paragraph—and accepting that most days, it is not all that.
Litigation can involve any area of law. There are family law attorneys who engage in litigation, and there are litigation attorneys in smaller firms who argue cases involving contracts, probate law (appeals), tort issues, and criminal law. As firms become larger, often they either specialize in one kind of litigation or assign each lawyer to a particular area of practice.
Unlike their television counterparts, litigation attorneys do not spend most of their time in a courtroom—unless they are on trial. They devote the majority of their hours to researching, writing motions, performing various aspects of discovery, meeting with experts, and speaking with clients. Many of the hours they do spend in court involve arguing motions or pretrying the case.
The amount of a lawyer’s actual courtroom trial work depends on multiple variables: what type of law is being litigated, the climate for settling cases, and whether the practice is more or less busy at any given time. Trials are intensive. Days become very long because there is much to get done, in addition to being in court before a judge or jury from ten o’clock until five. You still need to research pertinent issues, write and file motions for the trial, line up and prepare witnesses, and research and write jury charges. In a midsize or large firm, you may have the luxury of another lawyer or a paralegal who can help. In a small firm or solo practice, it’s up to you to perform all this work. It would be comparable to writing, directing, producing, and acting in your own play—all at once.
Many support services and organizations are available to litigation specialists. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) is the largest such organization. ATLA was created to help plaintiff’s lawyers come together and discuss the latest issues in the law. ATLA provides many other supports, especially for a sole practitioner: a forum for legal research exchange, where lawyers can share case strategies, court documents, and other information; a deposition bank (also found in various state trial lawyers associations); and a database where members can locate experts throughout the country in almost any specialty.
Other groups with support systems for the trial lawyer include the litigation section of most state bar associations and a number of magazines designed to help litigators keep up with the latest trends in the law. Court reporters for each state also help litigation attorneys keep up with the most recent decisions handed down from local courts on topics that may affect their clients.
Numerous software programs can assist the litigation attorney, from client databases and special billing programs to advanced case-management software that can help organize key points of a case, keep track of witnesses and evidence, and even generate tables and graphs. Other technological aids, such as handheld BlackBerry and Treo devices, can also help with communication and organization.
Salaries for trial lawyers vary greatly, depending on whether you work for a nonprofit organization, the state, a small firm, a large firm, or yourself. It also depends on what type of law you practice. A litigation attorney who works for insurance companies doing civil defense is going to have a steady hourly rate, whereas a lawyer doing civil plaintiff’s work accepts contingency fees. Smaller cases mean smaller pay, but a large case will gross more than some defense lawyers’ hourly rates over a considerable period.
In litigation, on some days, you will become tired of fighting other people’s battles, most often for a prize that seems less than worthwhile. But you will be carried ahead by those clients who are truly good, have worthwhile causes, and genuinely need your help.
Sandra Rachel Baker practices in Hartford, Connecticut, at a small firm, Regnier, Taylor, Curran & Eddy. She can be reached at email@example.com.