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 What is a Trial Attorney, and What is Civil Law?

Simply put, a trial attorney is an attorney who practices law in a trial court. Trial attorneys may also be referred to as litigation attorneys. Trial attorneys represent clients in civil cases, not criminal ones. The parties are called the “plaintiff” and the “respondent.”

The attorney is retained specifically to sue another party in civil court or to defend against a lawsuit that someone filed against their client. Notably, a civil case cannot end up with one party being sent to jail or prison. Rather, the punishment is usually an award of money, known as “damages.”

It is sometimes said that civil attorneys resolve “private wrongs,” such as interpersonal conflicts or conflicts involving businesses. Civil law differs from criminal law. In criminal law, the state or county will bring charges against an individual. In contrast, civil law involves one person or business bringing a lawsuit against another party.

Although criminal and civil law are different, they are not necessarily exclusive. If you steal and crash a car, you can be charged with the crime of grand larceny and also sued by the car’s owner for the value of the car. The two types of legal matters can result in different outcomes because, in a criminal trial, the county prosecutor has the difficult challenge of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt..” In a civil trial, the plaintiff has the lighter burden of proving their case by a “preponderance of the evidence” (that is, more likely than not).

This is how O.J. Simpson was held not guilty of killing his ex-wife and a friend. There was insufficient evidence to prove him criminally guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Still, he was held liable in the civil suit brought against him by the deceased’s family because the jury found that it was more likely than not that Simpson killed him.

What Specifically Does a Trial Attorney Do?

Trial attorneys practice law in almost any field where people interact and conduct business. Some examples of the areas of law in which they practice include:

  • Personal injury
  • Employment law, including suits alleging that the employer has engaged in discrimination
  • Family law (e.g., divorce)
  • Business and finance problems
  • Immigration matters
  • Real estate lawsuits
  • Health and medicine/medical problems, such as medical malpractice
  • Landlord-tenant disputes

A single trial attorney or law firm may handle any combination of practice areas, such as family and real estate law, in addition to personal injury cases.

Generally speaking, a trial attorney performs many different tasks, such as:

  • Before a lawsuit, meeting with and advising potential clients on their legal options
  • Filing various pre-trial motions and defending against pre-trial motions filed by the opponent
  • Obtaining documents and other items that could be used as evidence during a lawsuit (also referred to as “discovery”)
  • Interviewing clients as well as other witnesses and parties to build the case
  • Handling all correspondence with the other party’s attorney(s) as well as with the court
  • Conducting or defending a deposition, which is an interrogation by the opposite party in which the client is bound to the same honesty requirement as if they were in a court of law
  • Performing legal research before and during the trial
  • Engaging in settlement negotiations before and during the trial
  • Presenting the case in court before a judge and jury (not all civil trials involve a jury)

These are just a few examples of what civil trial attorneys do. Sometimes they will also need to hire expert witnesses, argue for various temporary legal remedies, and handle post-trial matters such as appeals. Trial attorneys must be intimately familiar with local procedural law for trials and the various laws that may be applied to a particular lawsuit.

How Much Does a Trial Attorney Cost?

In short, it depends. Several factors influence the cost of an attorney. These costs vary based on the field of law that your claim involves, the difficulty of the case, the amount of experience the attorney has, the amount of time spent pursuing or defending the lawsuit, and the going rate for similar attorneys in your city or state.

The cost of your attorney will also be affected by what sort of fee structure you choose for representation. There are three main types of fee structures utilized by attorneys:

  • Contingency: If an attorney takes your case on a contingency fee basis, they will earn an agreed-upon percentage of your total recovery. This is typically about thirty percent. If you lose your case, the attorney gets paid nothing. Contingency fees allow the client to pursue a costly case, even when they do not have the funds to afford to pay an attorney hourly or flat-rate fees (see below)
  • Hourly: It is most typical in the legal industry for attorneys to bill an hourly rate as the most common type of fee arrangement. The attorney will charge you for each hour and every portion of an hour they spend working on your case. You may be billed at a lower hourly rate for work performed by the attorney’s paralegal or other support staff. Hourly fees vary depending primarily on the level of experience your attorney has (how long they have been practicing law)
  • Flat Rate: A flat fee structure means the attorney charges the client a fixed, total fee for their services and representation. Flat rate structures are generally offered when a case is relatively simple or routine, such as writing a basic will or an uncontested divorce. They are not generally offered for court trial cases because it is difficult to estimate how much time and expense a trial case will result.
    • It is important to ask what services and expenses are covered by the flat rate and what are not. It is also important to note that to make it easier for clients to afford their fees, some attorneys may be willing to work out individual payment plans or allow you to pay in installments.

When an attorney has set a payment structure for a client, they will put the details into a written agreement called a “retainer.” This agreement is your contract with the lawyer and indicates what you can expect from your attorney and what your attorney can expect from you.

It is an extremely important document that outlines the scope of representation and the specific services the attorney intends to provide in exchange for their fees. Before signing any agreements, you must ensure that all the legal services you require are outlined in the written agreement.

Additionally, there may be extra fees that an attorney charges their client, so you should not be afraid to ask about such expenses. Extra fees or charges vary by law firm, but some common examples include initial consultation fees and retainer fees, as well as photocopying costs and the costs associated with filing and serving the court documents.

Should I Hire a Trial Attorney?

Someone can sue or be sued under many non-criminal theories of law. If you believe you have been wronged, financially or otherwise, hiring a skilled and knowledgeable trial attorney would be in your best interest. This is equally true if you are the one who got sued.

In addition to representing you in court, attorneys have many helpful experience negotiating settlements. When the two parties to the case try to negotiate, tempers can flare, and opportunities can be lost. When their attorneys discuss the case, it is often a more clear-headed, practical, and unemotional conversation and can result in a solution that both parties are content with.


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