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BY PROFESSOR JORDAN SINGER
Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Litigator

Time to take a side.

Litigators fight for their clients, both in and out of the courtroom. Whether it’s a criminal or civil case, litigation takes tenacity, curiosity, and creativity. If that’s the kind of lawyer you’d like to be, keep reading for a closer look at what it takes to become a litigator in law school and after.

Becoming a litigator

Like many law students, Justin Kesselman came to law school not knowing where, exactly, his JD was going to take him. But his first-year Civil Procedure class introduced him to litigation, and that was a game changer.

“The process of it, the constitutional aspects of it, the due process issues: all of that sparked my interest,” Kesselman says. Then, a summer internship with Community Legal Aid his 1L year gave Kesselman his first real litigation experience. “I was hooked,” he says.

Today, as an associate in the Complex Litigation and Bankruptcy & Financial Restructuring groups for Arent Fox, Kesselman works on everything from IP disputes to real estate to commercial contracts.

“Being a litigator, part of your expertise is in the process and being exposed to different areas of the law,” Kesselman says. “I like working on difficult problems. Litigation is intellectually stimulating and it’s rewarding. I’m really happy with the direction I chose.”

What does studying litigation entail?

Studying litigation starts with rules.

Just as you need to learn how the pieces move before playing chess or which keys make which notes before playing piano, you first need to learn about the rules and procedures for civil and criminal litigation, as well as the rules of evidence.

Once the rules are mastered, you will focus on litigation skills and strategy in your law school classes and experiential learning activities. Among other things, experiential courses in law school teach you how to write and argue motions before the court, how to gather information from opposing parties (and non-parties) that may be relevant to the case, and how to negotiate settlements or other out-of-court resolutions. You’ll also learn the practical business side of being a litigator: when to take a case (or not), how to get paid for your services, and how to ethically represent a client.

As one detailed example, students in my Intellectual Property Litigation course will work through a realistic case involving allegations of trademark infringement. They will write and argue a motion before the court, prepare an expert witness for deposition, and prepare an opening statement for a jury trial. As the semester moves on, they will become increasingly familiar with the facts of the case and will be challenged to do more and more complex tasks—the kind of tasks that one would expect from any litigation attorney.

Other real-world litigation experiences for law students might include judicial internships, clinical courses with government agencies, or moot court/mock trial teams, all of which can offer invaluable courtroom exposure.

The most successful litigators are not always the loudest or the most boisterous; they are the most curious, the most detail-oriented, the best prepared, and the most willing to outwork the opposing side.

On a personal level, I love litigation because it involves lifelong learning. In order to properly represent a client, I need to understand his or her business, family dynamics, and/or financial situation. I may need to learn the details of a specific accident or transaction, or how a particular machine or process works, or events or strategy behind a particular decision, in order to be able to explain it later to a judge or jury. In some ways, it’s like staying in school...but being paid for it.

Who should become a litigator?

If you don’t mind—or even relish—the spotlight, litigation might be the right legal specialty for you. It traditionally draws extroverts, perhaps in part because television and movies depict courtroom scenes as confrontational and dramatic. But there is room in litigation for every personality type.

The most successful litigators are not always the loudest or the most boisterous; they are the most curious, the most detail-oriented, the best prepared, and the most willing to outwork the opposing side.

And because litigation can arise in any type of law, from criminal to tax, success in litigation is not limited to a specific background or educational profile. Anyone who is willing to dive deeply into the facts of a case and willing to take the time to master the procedural rules can succeed in a litigation career.

Litigation can be a great legal career for the service-minded as well, because it allows you to help people in moments of great need. Our judicial system is designed to give people a chance to tell their story and be treated with respect and dignity. People often come to lawyers at times when they feel the most vulnerable; a good litigator can help them through the legal process, advocate on their behalf, and help ensure they sleep a little better at night.

What do litigators do, and where do they work?

Broadly, litigators represent a party in a dispute, working to achieve the best possible outcome for their client.

Each case takes on a life of its own, and the litigator must constantly evaluate next steps in light of what the judge or opposing counsel have done. Sometimes it pays to be aggressive. Sometimes it’s better to wait. And sometimes it’s best for everyone to settle the case quickly and privately. Each situation requires the lawyer to think carefully about the best next step.

Just like there’s room in litigation for all personality types, there are myriad career paths for litigators. It all depends on the type of litigation you do and the type of firm in which you work. Litigators can focus on civil or criminal law, and they can further specialize in a particular area like employment law, securities regulation, real estate, or patents.

Small firm and solo practitioners can often dive right into litigation work after law school, representing lower-stakes contract and tort claims early in their careers. In mid-size and larger firms, the path is often a bit more regimented, as junior attorneys develop general litigation skills and specific substantive expertise before being considered for partnership.

Many litigators also take detours in their careers, alternating between the world of civil litigation and criminal law (as prosecutors or defenders), or working in-house at a company or government agency. As is often the case for legal professionals, a litigator’s skills are readily transferable across different types of legal jobs.

What should students aspiring to study litigation do?

Litigation rewards creativity and attention to detail. While in law school, train yourself to read materials carefully and keep an eye out for the little details that make a big difference to the outcome. The more you know, the more empowered you will be to think about creative solutions and responses.

And as much as your time allows, get to know people in the profession. Go to law firm events, and join bar associations as a student member. Networking is not something that comes easily for all people, but building relationships with other lawyers can be invaluable for the litigator. It will bring you future business, provide a strong base of colleagues, and help keep you emotionally healthy.

Jordan Singer is a Professor of Law at New England Law | Boston. He also serves as the advisor for the school’s Litigation Concentration.