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A trial lawyer is a person who is education in the law, has passed the bar exam and argues their client's case in front of a judge or a jury. There are three types of trials in most countries that operate under civil law: criminal, civil and constitutional. A trial is a legal proceeding, where disputes are heard by an impartial person or group of citizen and a binding decision is obtained.
In a criminal trial, there are two trial lawyers. The person charged with the crime by the police has a trial lawyer called the defense attorney. That lawyer is responsible for arguing on behalf of the person charged.
The other trial lawyer is called the prosecution or crown lawyer. This type of lawyer argues on behalf of the law making body of the country. The purpose of a criminal trial is to act as an independent public review of the information provided by the police against the person charged with a crime.
Both trial lawyers use the law and the facts of the case to argue the case. The final decision is made by the judge or a group of independent citizens called a jury. The method for selecting a jury varies widely in different countries.
A civil trial is where two parties can go to settle their differences without having broken any laws. Civil trial lawyers can take cases covering a wide area of civil law -- everything from divorce to business disputes. Each party has their own trial lawyer and both argue to the judge that their perspective is correct.
In a constitutional court, trial lawyers argue with the government about the laws they have passed, changes to the constitution, or Supreme Court rulings. The trial lawyers in these types of cases must have greater resources at their disposal than regular trial lawyers, as they must do a great deal of research into the spirit of the law and the meaning behind it when arguing their cases. These cases also tend to have a much longer timeline to complete.
To become a trial lawyer, you must complete a degree in the law and pass the bar or barrister exam. Upon successful completion, you are certified as a lawyer. Every lawyer can decide if they want to specialize in a specific area, or have a general law practice.
A trial lawyer can work either for the government or for the general public. Working for the government provides a stable job, set salary and benefits and provides access to a wide range of cases. Most legal work is done outside of the trial setting, with the writing of opinions, research, filing of motions and meetings.
Working for the general public as a trial lawyer provides an opportunity to specialize in a particular type of case or to serve a broader community. Trial lawyers are paid based on their hourly rate and are responsible for securing their own clients. They often work in law firms, to share the costs of administration, law clerks and research services.
There is a misconception that all lawyers are trial lawyers. After all, that's what we see on television -- lawyers representing their clients in front of juries and usually winning. There are a lot of attorneys that never set foot in a courtroom as they're busily helping companies incorporate, drafting contracts, putting estate plans together, etc. None of that is exciting enough to build a TV show around, so attorneys who don't mess with trials aren't up there in the public conscience.
Ah, but you do need to consider them if you are in need of a trial lawyer. Your friend down the street who is an attorney might be able to put a great estate plan together, but that doesn't mean he can represent you well at trial. If you are looking for a trial lawyer, make sure you hire one with the requisite skills.
Perhaps a better question is what is a good trial lawyer? Most attorneys will handle trials with varying degrees of success and are, in a sense, trial lawyers. The better ones, however, will have a commendable win-loss record (ask them about it and they will be glad to tell you if they have a good success rate) and something that is a bit more intangible. Specifically, how good are they at negotiating settlements?
Taking matters to trial is one thing, but knowing when a matter should be settled and arranging favorable terms for clients is an art that comes with experience. A good trial lawyer, then, is one that knows when to try cases, when to settle them and represents clients well in both situations.
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