When it comes to prestigious professions, there aren’t many that can hold a candle to being a lawyer. When an attorney tells people what they do for a living or hands someone a business card, they generally make a good impression. However, there is a reason that lawyers tend to command high salaries — it’s not an easy job. And despite the television and movie stereotype of lawyers arguing passionately in a stately courtroom, the majority of attorneys do not have a particularly glamorous career.
What is it really like to be an attorney? We sat down with litigator Ralph Chapa to find out.
First: What’s the Difference Between Litigators and Trial Attorneys?
According to Ralph Chapa, litigators generally handle the preliminary and behind-the-scenes business of a civil suit. They file lawsuits, gather evidence, meet with clients, conduct legal research, draft briefs, and interview involved parties. They also file and argue motions. Some, but not all, litigators focus their efforts on mediation and out-of-court settlements rather than pushing a case to go to trial.
Trial lawyers, on the other hand, thrive when in front of a judge and jury. There, they tackle all the tasks that you see on true-crime shows or courtroom dramas: delivering opening and closing statements, present evidence, and question witnesses.
A Day in the Life of a Litigator
So what does a lawyer do, if their time is not spent making impassioned speeches, pacing the hallway while the jury deliberates, holding press conferences, or reassuring clients?
Would-be litigators can expect to spend the bulk of their days conducting research, either in a law library or at their own desk. Of course, explains Ralph Chapa, they also meet with clients, expert witnesses, and opposing counsel.
These are generalities, of course, and every attorney’s daily routine differs slightly. At smaller law firms and in independent practices, a litigator may be involved with every step of the process: investigation, pleadings, discovery, pre-trial, trial, settlement, and appeal. Litigators who work for larger firms will have to work their way up the legal-practice ladder, starting with research and writing memos. They may observe their colleagues during a trial, or they could be tapped to argue a motion in court.
Ralph Chapa encourages law students who are undecided about their future as an attorney to do some soul-searching and to be honest with yourself. If you enjoy the challenge of intellectual combat, don’t shy away from long hours and hard work, are tenacious and determined, and are willing to put in your time as a junior member of a law firm to earn your stripes, then a career in law as a litigator or a trial attorney might be a good choice for you.