What is a Civil Litigation Lawyer?

Christopher John

A civil litigation lawyer is a trial attorney who handles civil cases rather than criminal cases. This type of lawyer focuses his or her legal practice on representing clients in court. A civil litigation lawyer can either initiate a legal action by filing a lawsuit or defend a client by responding to a lawsuit and making counter-claims.  A civil litigation lawyer must have several skills to represent his or her clients effectively. 

Private suits between parties are civil matters.
Private suits between parties are civil matters.

Civil litigation lawyers will most likely focus their legal practice on specific areas of civil law.  For example, they might handle only medical malpractice cases, suits against governmental agencies or insurance defense.  Attorneys limit their legal practice to certain areas because the body of law covering a particular area can be vast and complex.

A civil litigation lawyer may focus primarily on medical malpractice cases.
A civil litigation lawyer may focus primarily on medical malpractice cases.

In addition to understanding the substantive law in their chosen area of practice, civil litigation lawyers also must constantly refine their knowledge of the rules of civil procedure, rules of evidence and the local rules of court.  A civil litigation lawyer must know these rules and understand how courts apply these rules so they can use them in their client's favor.  A lawyer who knows employment law but lacks knowledge of the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence might find his or her lawsuit dismissed because another lawyer used the rules to keep out certain evidence.

Knowledge of the law is not enough for a civil litigation lawyer. He or she also must master the art of persuasion because as a trial lawyer, he or she must constantly work toward convincing a judge or jury to make decisions that will favor their client.  This is not an easy task if, for example, the client is a company responsible for manufacturing a product that might have injured or killed someone.  

A civil litigation lawyer must understand how to conduct every phase of the litigation process.  At the pre-trial stage, he or she must know how to conduct a client interview to determine whether the client has a viable claim.  The lawyer must have persuasive legal writing skills so that he or she can draft a complaint that will frame the client’s case favorably and survive motions by the opposing party. After the civil litigation lawyer files a lawsuit, his or her interrogatory skills and knowledge of the law will extract key information from an opposing party during the discovery phase.  

At the trial phase, a civil litigation lawyer must know how to present his or her witnesses and cross-examine opposing witnesses.  He or she must know when to object and make compelling arguments to the judge to keep out damaging evidence or get in critical evidence.  The lawyer must know when to be aggressive toward a witness without angering a jury and must understand that he or she must be likable to a jury even when the client is not. A civil litigation lawyer also must know how to tell a persuasive story that will cause a judge or jury to render a verdict in favor of his or her client. 

Most attorneys constantly hone their skills by studying various case laws and reviewing legal journals.
Most attorneys constantly hone their skills by studying various case laws and reviewing legal journals.

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Discussion Comments


@Logicfest -- You have some pressures in civil cases, too. If a lawyer messes up there, people can lose their kids (in divorce cases), wind up financially ruined (breach of contract cases, for example) or people who should pay some cash can get off without paying anything (medical malpractice and such).

That is not to say that civil lawyers deal with more pressure than criminal lawyers. I would argue that just being a trial lawyer is a stressful thing.


@Vincenzo -- I don't know if practicing criminal law is any less difficult than civil litigation because there is so much more at stake. If a criminal lawyer drops the ball, an innocent man or woman can wind up in the penitentiary.

That is a lot of pressure. You do not have quite that pressure in civil cases, do you?


I have rarely met a civil attorney who was not also a criminal attorney. In fact, a good number of great trial lawyers start off in criminal law. That work is pretty easy to get and, by comparison, cases are easier on average than civil ones.

That is because criminal statutes are mostly black and white in nature and clients either broke the law or they did not. Violations of civil law are usually more subtle. Those lawyers deal in more shades of gray.

Practicing criminal law will also teach a lot about courtroom procedure, rules of evidence and other things needed to form the foundation of a good civil practice.

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