chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 23, 2014 Articles

Tips for Young Lawyers to Acquire Litigation Experience

Increase your odds of doing the work you always dreamed of doing

By Brandon C. Helms

It can be difficult for associates to acquire practical litigation experience—taking and defending depositions, arguing motions and hearings, and examining witnesses at trial—especially for associates at midsize and large firms. Many of us have heard horror stories like the mid-level associate who has done nothing but document review or the senior associate who has never taken a deposition let alone examined a witness at trial.  

There are various reasons for this general lack of experience, including client desires, firm culture or practice, and the dearth of cases that proceed to trial. Whatever the reason, this article presents some tips for associates to increase their odds of doing the type of litigation work they were hoping to do when they graduated law school.

Get Involved Early in Pro Bono Litigation

Pro bono work is a worthy cause in and of itself, but pro bono matters also provide some of the best opportunities for experience. Whether or not your firm encourages pro bono involvement, you owe it to yourself to take the time to participate in pro bono matters. And you need not spend an inordinate amount of time on pro bono matters to achieve your goals.

For example, there are likely a number of legal aid programs in your city that provide opportunities for experience. One example in Chicago is the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic. Volunteer attorneys take shifts at the clinic as frequently as they would like, and during each shift a volunteer is assigned a client who is a victim of domestic abuse. During the first meeting, the volunteer attorney works with the client to draft the filing papers, and the attorney handles the emergency order of protection hearing that same day. At a subsequent hearing, usually three weeks out, the volunteer attorney proceeds with the plenary hearing, which involves direct and cross-examination and attorney argument. Therefore, in addition to being a worthy cause, the volunteer attorney gains valuable experience working firsthand with a client and speaking on his or her feet in court. Each specific engagement only requires a few hours of commitment from the volunteer attorney.

On the other end of the spectrum in terms of commitment, several federal district courts, such as the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, assign pro bono cases to members of their trial bars. These cases are federal civil and criminal actions that require commitments that any non-pro bono case would, such as informal and formal discovery, motion practice, and trial. The requirements to join the trial bar are typically not that arduous, but those who lack the qualifications can always seek to assist partners in their court-appointed cases. I know many associates who took their first deposition or argued their first hearing as part of a court-appointed case.

For those more interested in appellate litigation than trial work, opportunities exist for them as well. For instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has a pro bono program. Volunteer attorneys draft appellate briefs and settlement agreements, and some of the assignments proceed to oral argument. Each assignment is projected to take sixty hours or less.

Assist with Other Non-Billable Legal Work

It will come as no surprise that partners dole out their choice assignments to the associates they like and on whom they can rely. One of the easiest ways for an associate to ingratiate himself with a partner is to assist with the projects no one else wants to do—the non-billable projects that the associate's firm may not credit. Drafting pitch materials, writing articles or book chapters, or drafting amicus briefs that are not funded by clients are examples that come to mind.

While these projects likely require additional time at the office, being on a partner’s short list is always a good thing, and often the projects themselves provide experience. One of the first amicus briefs I wrote was non-billable, but it gave me experience before the Ninth Circuit, which I did not have before working on the brief. I also know a partner who briefed and argued a federal circuit appeal on a pro bono basis simply to get the experience of arguing before the federal circuit.

Snowball Effect of Experience

Once an associate has taken their first deposition or examined a witness at trial, it is surprising—particularly given how hard it can be to reach those milestones—how quickly additional opportunities come his or her way. If clients know an associate has deposition or trial experience, then they usually have no qualms with that associate doing similar work on their billable matters. The same goes for partners; they are usually all too eager to share the workload when they know an associate has handled similar responsibilities in the past. It does not matter that the associate’s experience came from a pro bono case.

Participating in pro bono cases and assisting with non-billable work paid off for my colleagues and me. For those eager to take depositions, argue motions, or examine witnesses, these tips—as obvious or common sense as they may be—should help you in achieving your goals.

Keywords: litigation, trial practice, young lawyers, law school, pro bono, trial experience

Copyright © 2014, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).