Trial lawyers or civil litigators are lawyers who represent clients in civil lawsuits. Trial lawyers spend much of their time on pre-trial issues such as discovering facts, deposing witnesses, and preparing cases to be tried. They also spend a significant amount of time negotiating, drafting pleadings, writing briefs, and filing motions. Although most cases are resolved before trial, litigators must have the confidence and skill to argue motions and try a case to a jury or judge. Litigators also frequently handle appeals after a case is tried.
Lawyers who do litigation must have strong legal research and writing skills, since a large part of the practice involves writing. They need to be well organized and detail-oriented, and have the ability to see the big picture. Trial lawyers also need to be skilled negotiators and have good people skills, since they spend a great deal of time settling cases and talking with clients, witnesses, and opposing counsel.
Civil litigation spans a broad spectrum of substantive law. Some litigators are generalists who work in diverse areas of law. Others specialize in particular practice areas, such as employment, business, product liability, or malpractice. Litigators may work in small boutique firms, small or medium general practice firms or in litigation departments of large firms. Corporations, insurance companies and financial institutions also hire litigators to work in their in-house litigation departments.
In the past few years there has been increasing interest in alternative dispute resolution, particularly mediation — an informal alternative in which an individual brings opposing parties together to work out an agreement — and arbitration — a simplified version of a trial involving no discovery and simplified rules of evidence. Although this area of practice is increasing in popularity, it is most often experienced lawyers and retired judges who practice in this area.
These are the basic courses that faculty and prospective employers recommend for students interested in this specialty.
- Advanced Legal Writing: Writing for Law Practice
- Appellate Advocacy - Moot Court
- Civil Procedure II
- Client Counseling and Interviewing
- Conflict of Laws
- Federal Jurisdiction
- Lawyering Skills: Oral Communications
- Negotiations/Mediation (/Arbitration)
- Pre-trial Advocacy
- Trial Advocacy
- Trial Advocacy: Mock Trial
The following courses address recurring foundational issues which enhance a litigator's knowledge of choices routinely encountered in shaping litigation.
Substantive Law Courses
Students interested in a specialty within this area of practice should take substantive law courses in their area of interest. Examples would be:
- Antitrust Law
- Contracts II
- Environmental Law and Practice
- Equal Employment Law
- Family Law I
- Family Law II
- Immigration Law
- Introduction to Intellectual Property
- Labor Relations Law
- Torts II
(Note that whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand.)
Clinics, Internships, and Externships
The Consumer Law Litigation Clinic represents low- and moderate-income consumers in individual and class action lawsuits in federal and state courts. The Clinic operates year-round and is open to students who have completed their first year of law school. The Consumer Law Litigation Clinic trains students in all aspects of civil litigation.
Students work in various civil units of the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The program offers law students a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in public advocacy and litigation. Externs practice trial, appellate and administrative law with some of the state's most well-respected litigators, working on matters of statewide importance.
The Judicial Internship Program places students with trial and appellate judges throughout Wisconsin, including placements with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the federal district courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin. Student work varies but usually emphasizes research and writing.
The educational mission of the Neighborhood Law Project is to train students in legal research and analysis, drafting, negotiation, litigation, and other skills, while also engaging them in a critical inquiry into the role of law and lawyers in redressing economic injustice and inequality. Students work under close supervision, and gain experience in client interviewing, counseling, and client-centered lawyering.
Mediation Clinic law students mediate a variety of cases in the Dane County Small Claims Court including landlord-tenant, contract, employment, auto-accident and property damage cases. In addition, the Mediation Clinic will be accepting cases from the UW-Madison Division of Student Life and other campus organizations.
Restorative Justice Project
The Restorative Justice Project gives students the opportunity to practice mediation skills and assess the effectiveness of an alternative dispute resolution process by providing mediation between the victims of crime and the criminal offenders. The project is open to students who have completed their first year of Law School.
Second and third-year law students can receive academic credit, through the Law Externship course, for working on litigation matters at organizations such as the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Wisconsin. Contact Externship Director Jane Heymann for more information.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
Students who are interested in civil litigation should seek out opportunities in law school to develop their writing and oral advocacy skills.
The American Inns of Court is a legal mentoring organization rooted in the 800-year-old tradition of the Inns of Court in England. The goal of the American Inns of Court is to raise the standard of the legal profession by focusing on the development of skills, ethics, and professionalism. The James E. Doyle American Inn of Court, which meets in Madison, is comprised of judges, lawyers, law professors, and law students who meet approximately once a month. Inn programs provide creative, practical, interactive instruction in all areas of legal practice, particularly litigation. A dinner following the program provides a collegial atmosphere that encourages networking between all members, mentoring and skills development, and the exchange of concepts, ideas and techniques. If you are interested in becoming a student member of the James E. Doyle American Inn of Court, contact Professor Mitch.
There are three student journals — Wisconsin Law Review, Wisconsin International Law Journal, and Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society — that give students an opportunity to assist with and contribute to the Law School's scholarly publications. These publications provide invaluable training in legal research and writing. Students receive academic credit for this activity.
Mock Trial provides real trial experience at a competitive level. Students participate in nationwide competitions that give them opportunities to give opening and closing statements and direct- and cross-examine witnesses. For the student interested in litigation it is an invaluable experience to learn skills you may not get in the classroom. Students receive academic credit for this activity.
Here are some of the full-time faculty who teach or have an interest in this subject area:
In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Adjunct Faculty List.