Introduction to Civil Litigation

Female attorney talking in legal trial courtroom
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Civil litigation is a legal process in which criminal charges and penalties are not at issue. When two or more parties become embroiled in such a non-criminal legal dispute, the case is presented at a trial where plaintiffs seek compensation or other damages from defendants.

The standard of proof is less stringent in civil proceedings as opposed to criminal proceedings. To win their cases, attorneys in civil cases must meet the preponderance of evidence standard, meaning they must simply present more convincing evidence to a judge or jury than their opposition. Whereas prosecutors in criminal trials must also present convincing evidence but to prevail, they must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Role of a Civil Litigation Attorney

A lawyer who specializes in civil litigation is known as a “litigator” or a “trial lawyer.” The role and responsibilities of a civil litigation attorney can be challenging and diverse. Lawyers specializing in this field must be willing to assume oppositional positions, embracing conflict and controversy. They serve as their client's advocate, obligated to fight for them to achieve the best possible outcome. Attorneys and litigation paralegals in this field often work long hours, especially during a trial. Certain key legal skills and knowledge are essential to litigation practice, including:

  • Knowledge of substantive and procedural law
  • Strong written and oral advocacy skills
  • Analytical and logical reasoning abilities
  • Ability to synthesize complex legal and factual materials
  • Superior interpersonal skills
  • Knowledge of legal research techniques and software
  • Client development skills
  • Negotiation skills

Litigation attorneys often represent their clients across a variety of associated proceedings, including pretrial hearings and depositions, as well as arbitration and mediation. Both of the latter processes are geared toward having the two parties reach a settlement without investing the time and absorbing the expense of going to court. 

The difference between arbitration and mediation is that arbitration is overseen by an arbitrator who listens to both sides make their case and present evidence before handing down a decision, while mediation involves a mediator engaging all of the parties and helping them reach a mutually agreeable resolution to their dispute.

Education Requirements

Becoming a civil litigator requires possessing an undergraduate degree and then pass a Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to enter law school. Over the course of their studies, students typically take a range of classes on everything from employment discrimination to education to family law. To begin practicing law in their jurisdiction once they’ve earned their law degree, an attorney must then pass their state’s bar examination.

Civil litigation encompasses a broad range of disputes, and litigators generally specialize in one or two specific practice areas. Several common areas include:

  • Environmental law
  • Landlord/tenant disputes 
  • Product liability lawsuits 
  • Personal injury claims 
  • Intellectual property disputes
  • Construction liability lawsuits 
  • Medical malpractice claims
  • Employment and labor disputes
  • Real estate lawsuits 
  • Anti-trust litigation 
  • Workers' compensation claims 
  • Education law disputes
  • Divorce lawsuits 

The Life Cycle of a Typical Civil Litigation Case

Civil litigation is typically divided into a series of different stages, including investigation, pleadings, discovery, pretrial proceedings, potential settlement or trial, and even appeal. Discovery is typically the longest and most labor-intensive stage of a case. Unlike the way they're often portrayed on television, civil attorneys spend comparatively little time in the trial.

Much of a litigator’s time is devoted to the discovery stage, during which information pertinent to the case is gathered through depositions, interrogatories, and subpoenas. Depositions and interrogatories involve questions posed under penalty of perjury to the parties in a lawsuit, and a subpoena is a summons demanding information or documents from a third party. Deposition questions are posed orally under oath, and interrogatories are written questions.

Not every lawsuit passes through each stage—in fact, most do not. The majority of lawsuits are settled by agreement of the parties and never reach the courtroom. Parties can settle during a trial, even after a jury has begun deliberating or has delivered a verdict. They can settle or "stipulate" to some aspects of the lawsuit, leaving others in the hands of the judge or jury. 

When a case does go all the way to trial, the entire process, from filing documents with the court to initiate the case through its resolution, can take anywhere from a few months to several years.