Civil litigation is the most popular practice area for lawyers. Litigators represent individuals, companies, nonprofit organizations, and other entities. Practice areas for civil litigation attorneys include, but are not limited to, personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice, employment law, contractor/construction claims, general civil claims, real estate, antitrust, education law, bankruptcy, product liability, landlord/tenant issues, divorce, family law, probate, business transactions, intellectual property law, insurance contracts, environmental law, and collections. A civil litigation lawyer may handle a case alone or work as a member of a litigation team. Many lawyers work on several cases at a time. Some lawyers represent only plaintiffs or defendants in a civil lawsuit, while others are open to representing either party.
The civil litigation process has five stages: investigation/pleadings, discovery, pre-trial, trial/settlement, and appeal—although not every lawsuit goes through each of these stages. Some lawsuits are dismissed by judges early in the process, while most are settled before they go to trial. In fact, only 5.2 percent of civil litigation cases were decided by a trial in 2009, according to the National Center for State Courts. The time it takes to resolve a lawsuit can range from several months to several years. The responsibilities of civil litigation lawyers change with each stage of a lawsuit.
During this stage, the lawyer meets with the client to collect information that supports bringing a lawsuit against a party. For example, members of a condo association might meet with a lawyer because the new units they purchased are experiencing water damage during rainstorms due to what they believe was improper construction. If the lawyer believes that the plaintiffs have a case, he or she files a legal document known as a complaint in a court of law. The complaint describes the plaintiff’s allegations, provides evidence that supports the claim, and details the relief (financial compensation, repair of the building, etc.) that the plaintiff is seeking from the defendant. The attorney also serves a summons of complaint to the defendant. The lawyer for the defendants files a legal document called an answer that details the defendant’s objections to the complaint. The judge reviews these documents and either dismisses the case for lack of merit or allows it to continue.
In discovery, typically the longest phase in the legal process, the civil litigation lawyer collects data about the case from both the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s). The lawyer representing the water-damage plaintiffs would ask for copies of purchase contracts, blueprints, warranties, and other documents that support their clients’ claims. The lawyer may also ask the defendants to complete a set of written questions about the case, called interrogatories, which must be answered under oath. He or she may also request other documents such as real estate contracts, building maintenance records, and contractor receipts that relate to inferior work on the building that may be causing the water damage. In other types of cases, the lawyer might request documents such as bank statements, e-mail and written correspondence, employment records, medical records, company policies, and police records.
The civil litigation lawyer may also schedule depositions during the discovery process. Depositions consist of sworn testimony regarding the facts, people, and events of the case. Additionally, the lawyer may hire subject matter experts who can provide technical advice to the lawyer regarding the case. The lawyer working on the water-damage lawsuit might hire a construction inspector or construction engineer to review the facts of the case and any supporting documents (warranties, contracts, repair records, etc.), offer expert advice, and provide expert witness testimony during depositions or trial that supports the plaintiffs’ case.
During the discovery phase, the civil litigation attorney continuously negotiates for a settlement with the defendant’s attorney. Many lawsuits are settled during this phase.
The lawsuit goes to trial if a settlement can’t be made. During pre-trial, the lawyer prepares and submits a brief to the judge that details the evidence and arguments that he or she plans to present during trial. The defendant’s lawyer also prepares a brief in response to the allegations.
The case may be heard by a judge or a jury. In a jury trial, the civil litigation attorney and the defendant’s attorney participate in the selection of jurors. The attorneys for each side make opening statements regarding the case and then present evidence (documents, expert witness testimony, etc.) that supports their client’s side of the case. Each lawyer can cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. After each side has presented all of its evidence, the attorneys from both sides make closing arguments in order to convince the judge or jury to decide in their favor. Then the judge or jury reviews the evidence and makes a verdict. If the judge or jury rules in the plaintiff’s favor, a settlement is awarded. In the instance of the water-damage case, the judge or jury may award monetary compensation to the plaintiffs, require the defendant to repair the water damage, or require a combination of monetary compensation and repairs.
If the plaintiff or defendant disagrees with the verdict, he or she can file an appeal to a higher court (an appellate court), which reviews the trial proceedings to determine if any errors were made. If significant errors are identified, the case may be retried. In this instance, the civil litigation lawyer may handle the appeal or, if the lawyer is not experienced in practicing appellate law, refer to the case to an appellate lawyer.
In addition to working with potential and current clients, civil litigation attorneys who own their own firms must manage office staff (paralegals, legal secretaries, etc.), prepare bills for clients, and promote their businesses in local newspapers, through mailings, at their Web sites, and possibly through social media.
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