Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Being a Litigator

Before I became a litigator, I had a lot of preconceived notions of what litigators do. Some were accurate. Most were not. Before going down the road of litigation, you need to evaluate both the pros and cons.

First, the bad news.

Litigation is adversarial. If you hate conflict, don’t expect to enjoy litigation. Your client is either suing someone or being sued. There is no love loss here. The parties often expect their attorneys to be aggressive, sometimes overly so. Expect opposing counsel to come gunning for you.

Litigation is driven by deadlines. There are deadlines for everything. Answers to interrogatories, requests for production and requests for admission. Expert reports and expert depositions. Discovery cutoffs and looming trial dates. Multiply this by 20 to 50 cases, and it’s a surprise you’re doing anything but extinguishing the next fire. Attorneys who are in short supply of case management skills may find these deadlines dictating their practices to them.

Litigation is not like television. Some of us went to law school, in part, because of popular lawyer shows - L.A. Law, The Practice or Law & Order to name a few. It looked pretty cool on television, didn’t it? But art does not always imitate life. The real practice of law is not glamorous. Most of your time is not trying high profile cases. More like it, most of your time is spent in front of your computer, doing research, drafting memos and responding to e-mails. In short, litigation may not live up to your expectations.

You never stop litigating. If you’re conscientious, it’s hard to leave the work at the office. At home, you wonder if you should have asked that extra question in deposition. When you’re out, you worry about whether the motion was filed. You even find that the conversations with your loved ones have turned into cross examinations. It’s hard to leave it at the office.

You will never know enough. It takes time to learn the practice well enough to feel comfortable in your own skin as a litigator. For some it takes 5 years. Others, 10 years. Some never reach a comfort level. It is a long process. You don’t become a litigator overnight.

A lot depends on instinct, and instinct takes time. A lot that is asked of us as litigators requires quick decisions - quick decisions at depositions, at hearings and at trials, to name a few. To make those decisions, we need to rely on our instincts, and instincts take time to develop. As a young litigator, you will second guess yourself a great deal. Only experience puts a stop to it.

Now, the good news.

There’s never a dull moment. Yes there is research to do and memos to write, but litigation is fast-paced and you will get swept up in it. You will plan how to beat the other side and you will use all your wits and heart and energy to see that plan through. All along, surprises and challenges will pop up and you will have to deal with them. It can be a bit terrifying but it certainly isn’t boring.

It’s like a good chess match. The other side wants to win. So do you. He’s making all sorts of moves to take your king, while you defend it, simultaneously trying to take his. For every move there’s a counter move, and nothing is as it seems. You like a good chess match? You’ve come to the right place.

Sometimes, it is like television. Yes, you spend an awful amount of time in front of the computer. Your office is your home away from home. But sometimes you get to venture out. Sometimes you destroy that expert in deposition. Sometimes you knock it out of the park at the hearing. And sometimes, yes sometimes, you actually get to try a case, and, get this, win. Sometimes you are Michael Kuzak from L.A. Law.

It improves with age. Like fine wine, being a lawyer improves with age. The longer you practice, the more your skills improve, the more law you learn and the more comfortable you become with the practice of law. If you get past the fear and uncertainty of the first few years, you will enjoy the fruits of your hard work.

When it comes to litigation, there are good things and there are bad things. If you can learn to enjoy the good and not linger on the bad, you may just make a career of it.


Anonymous said...

As a litigator for the past 6 years, this looks like an excellent list of pros and cons to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this...
I'm still working through undergrad but my intended destination is graduation from Law School.
I had been searching for a better understanding on what it means to be a lawyer, and here it is.

Caroline said...

I am a sophomore in high school, soon to be a junior, so the time for choosing a career is opportune. I have been researching information about being a lawyer for about two years now. This list was one of the best I've seen yet. Thanks!

Yeoman said...

I've been a litigator for over 20 years, and you're off the mark on a couple of your items.

One, it does indeed become dull. Over time, you become dulled to the situations that give rise to litigation, and then the work itself can be done.

Second, lawyers improve with age for about 15 years, and decline thereafter. This is true of all professions, but a litigator is most effective between his tenth and fifteenth year. Prior to ten years, he or she is green, after 15, you tend to stay stuck in that 10 to 15 year period in terms of your legal outlook, which is a disadvantage.

uk immigration solicitors said...

A litigator who can sum up in a page and a half or in a 5 minute conversation the merits of the dispute and the best way forward, will always be highly valued.

Rich Cook said...

I have been practicing nearly 30 years and agree with your assessment. I have not found it boring and have love doing it. I have been blessed with a variety of different cases and have not been afraid to push my boundaries a little from time-to-time. In larger firms where people specialize and handle only one type of case, it may become boring. I have worked as a federal law clerk, state prosecutor, federal prosecutor, insurance defense attorney, criminal defense attorney and plaintiff's attorney. If you specialize you will undoubtedly make more money. The downside is that you may get burnt out from the monotony of doing the same type of case over and over again. However, even if you specialize it helps to get outside your area of the law even if it is just reading advance sheets. This expands your analogical skills and you may discover a different way of approaching a problem by way of analogy. Not only is variety the spice of life, it may also increase your creativity. Thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

Lets get to the point.
In most professions it may become "repetitious" or "boring." It's all about doing something you have a passion for regardless of the pay. For example: A lot of young people wanting to pursue a career as a pilot come to find out it's not so glamorous. Most flight schools/colleges can cost a student well into the 120k-150k easily. Most major regional airlines start pilots out around 20k-25k annually. I agree with Rich Cook when he states that switching it up may be the best thing to keep things "fresh." I wish the best of luck to all those who consider law as a profession.

Vegan said...

Great article! I'm a litigator, and I recently sent a link to this article to a college student who is thinking about law school and asked me for advice.

Jon said...

Still a great article. I read this article a few years ago, towards the end of my first year of practice, and found it helpful then.

Coming back across it now, almost four years later, I think its very on point. As I am just now entering into my 5th year of practicing law, I cannot comment as to the 20-30 year perspective as can others - but I can say that based on my experience to date, this whole article seems pretty on point to me.

Anonymous said...

The glamour of law practice does not end so long as the enthusiasm remains. I believe it's a matter of not getting burned up that one stays fresh... Thanks for this great article. I am a litigation attorney from the Philippines, a country lawyer and found the experience you shared reflective of our collective experience in the legal profession.

Andi Anderson said...

Congratulations! This is the best thing, Thank you so much for taking the time to share this exciting information.

Anonymous said...

In hindsight do you feel the pro's of litigation outweigh the cons of practicing litigation?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...


You're a well-educated and professional litigator, and you couldn't come up with your own words to describe your profession's pros and cons?

You embarrassed yourself, a little. Sure, this guy's are great, but you shouldn't have to go fishing for words to describe your profession.

Lucas Cason said...

I am a sophomore in highschool, and i stumbled apon this while researching for an essay. It helped explain the advantages of being a litigator, which i have been wanting to be since my freshman year. I thank you for putting this information out for fresh eyes to view. You have really helped me down my path of becoming a lawyer.

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