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A Day in the Life of a Trial Lawyer

Trial lawyers represent clients involved in litigation, both civil and criminal. Criminal lawyers may represent plaintiffs or defendants, the "people," or the accused. Civil litigators take the side of a party in a dispute where no crime is involved. The trial lawyer's job is to persuade a jury of the facts in a case, and to display them in a way that best supports their client's position. Each piece of evidence must be presented and disputed according to a complicated set of rules. On days out of court, trial lawyers review files and scheduling orders, contact witnesses, take depositions, and talk to clients. On court days, lawyers argue motions, meet with judges, prepare scheduling orders, select jurors, and argue cases. The preparation for a trial can take many months. Due to the tremendous cost of litigation, however, most cases settle before they ever reach trial. Trial law requires excellent analytical skills. Litigators use their knowledge of legal precedents to analyze the probable outcome of a case

Paying Your Dues

After finishing law school and passing the bar exam, new litigators put in long hours assisting senior lawyers. Typical jobs include fact gathering and legal research, "the nitty-gritty things," that are essential to a successful trial. The volume of records to sort and organize can be daunting, but well-sorted documents make it easier for the principal lawyer to present a coherent case before a jury. Eventually, beginning lawyers sit in on trials as second or third chair. They may at this point participate in conferences with judges or even prepare evidentiary arguments. This mentoring process eventually leads to responsibility for an entire case. The starting salary and experience of trial lawyers can vary greatly depending on where they work. Generally, private practice is much more lucrative than public interest law, clerking, or working in the D.A.'s office. These positions are prestigious, however. In smaller towns and smaller firms you get more responsibility and client contact early on, but the pay is much better is a large firm.

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Present and Future

Early colonists were suspicious of lawyers, many had just escaped what they considered to be an unjust legal system. They also identified law with lay officers of the crown such as tax collectors, unpopular characters in any society. In addition, the concerns of lawyers were frowned upon as very "earthy" and "material" by the clergy in the colonies. Later, the profession of law grew more honorable as it became associated with the idealism of the founding fathers and the building of the nation. Law has been glamorized in recent years by television shows such as LA Law, Court TV, and highly televised trials like the O.J. Simpson case and that of Rodney King. In truth, the practice of criminal law is fairly routine. The main difficulty with the modern-day litigation its exorbitant cost. Even lawyers believe it is too expensive to maintain in its current form. We may also soon see legislation limiting the damages that may be awarded in civil litigation. (No more $5 million settlements for spilling coffee in your lap.) In addition to being expensive, litigation is also time-consuming. Society is exploring new methods of dispute resolution to streamline the process.

Quality of Life


New lawyers in a big firm spend much of their time doing legal research, gathering evidence, and administrating the cases their higher-ups are handling. Billable hours are a major concern. Most new associates are responsible for between 1800-2400 billable hours each year. This means working long hours and weekends. In a smaller firm budding litigators have more exposure to the partners and are more likely to get feedback on their work. There's a chance that you'll have a wider variety of tasks, and see more challenging work in the first few years in a small firm, but the money isn't as good.


The five-year mark brings increased responsibility. Litigators may be drafting their own documents by this time, taking depositions, arguing motions in court, and managing their own caseload. More client contact occurs at this stage. Associates work to develop a specialty, and have usually decided whether to pursue a partner track. Those who decide not to dedicate their efforts to becoming partner might opt for an in-house position with a company or pursue a different career track entirely. In-house counsel work fewer hours than a partner-track associate, but the pay is reduced as well.


By this time attorneys should have made partner in their firm. With ownership in the firm comes responsibility. Good lawyers have a reputation in their specialty by this time and they use it to bring in business. How much business they generate will help determine the cut of the profits they receive, and their continued success will depend on their ability to become a "rainmaker." Those who don't make partner usually find another firm, though in some situations they stay on as an associate or are retained in a position known as "of counsel." The compensation is very good at this level.