Introduction to Civil Litigation

Behind the Scenes of a Civil Litigation Case

Male lawyer with hand on chin
Cultura RM/Matelly

What Is Civil Litigation?

When two or more parties become embroiled in a legal dispute seeking money or another specific performance rather than criminal sanctions, civil litigation is the result. They must instead head to the courtroom for trial so a judge or jury can decide the matter.

A lawyer who specializes in civil litigation is known as a “litigator” or a “trial lawyer.” He represents clients across a broad spectrum of associated proceedings, including pretrial hearings and depositions, as well as arbitration or mediation before administrative agencies or court personnel.

Arbitration and mediation are processes that attempt to guide the parties toward settlement without the time and expense of going to court. 

Types of Civil Litigation

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

Civil litigation can be loosely defined as a legal process in which criminal charges and penalties are not at issue. 

The Role of a Civil Litigation Lawyer

The role and responsibilities of a civil litigation attorney can be challenging and diverse. It is an adversarial process with two or more parties pitted against each other.

The attorney is his client's advocate, obligated to fight for him to achieve the best possible outcome on the client's behalf. Lawyers specializing in this field must be willing to assume oppositional positions, to embrace conflict and controversy, and to effectively act as human pit bulls in defense of their clients.

Attorneys and litigation paralegals in this field often work long hours, especially during trial. 

Certain skills and knowledge are essential to litigation practiceKey legal skills include:

  • 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

The Life Cycle of a Typical Civil Litigation Case

Civil litigation can be divided into several 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 trial. Much of their time is devoted to the discovery stage -- the exchange of information pertinent to the case through depositions, interrogatories, and subpoenas.

The latter are demands for information or documents from third parties. Depositions and interrogatories involve questions posed under penalty of perjury to the parties in a lawsuit. Deposition questions are posed orally under oath. Interrogatories are written questions. 

Not every lawsuit passes through each stage -- in fact, most don't. The majority of lawsuits are settled by agreement of the parties and never reach the courtroom. Parties can settle during 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 resolution, can take anywhere from a few months to several years. 

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