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How to Become a Litigator

Research the requirements to become a litigator. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in litigation. View article »

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  • 0:00 Should I Be a Litigator?
  • 0:28 Career Requirements
  • 1:11 Career Steps

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Video Transcript

Should I Be a Litigator?

A litigator is a trial lawyer who negotiates disputes that go to court. Litigators may choose to specialize in personal injury, real estate, or contracts, or they could be generalists. They can work for law firms, government agencies, businesses, or for their own private practice. They might also supervise paralegals or legal assistants. Stress may be very intense for litigators during trials.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Degree Field Law
Licensure Licensure by passing the state Bar Examination is required
Experience Varies by employer; 0-5 years
Key Skills Excellent verbal and written communication, legal research, analytical, critical-thinking, multitasking, and organizational skills; knowledge of Microsoft Office and other related legal software; legal research; attention to detail; honesty and responsibility
Salary $115,820 (2015 median salary for all lawyers)

Sources: US Bureau of Labor Statistics; Law School Admission Council; Online job postings from employers (August 2015)

Getting into the career requires the completion of an undergraduate degree, Juris Doctor and passing the bar exam. Experience requirements vary by employer, but 0-5 years may be requested. Key skills include excellent verbal and written communication, knowledge of Microsoft Office and other related legal software, legal research, analysis, critical thinking, multitasking, organization, attention to detail, honesty, and responsibility. In 2015, all lawyers earned a median annual salary of $115,820, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now let's check out the career steps for litigators.

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Career Steps

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

There is not one official bachelor's degree program required for admission into law school, but common majors include English, history, economics, government or a subject related to the type of law a student wishes to pursue. General education requirements can help students develop essential skills for succeeding in law school, like public speaking, research, and writing.

To shine in your undergrad program, keep your grades high. Since grade point average (GPA) is an important factor in the decision to accept students to law school, undergraduates should take their studies seriously. Commitment to education must be demonstrated, since law school is rigorous.

Additionally, take a diverse set of difficult courses. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) suggests that prospective law students enroll in challenging undergraduate courses to prepare for the demands of law school. The LSAC also recommends being well versed in history, current world news, society and behavior, cultural diversity, and finances.

Step 2: Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

Students planning on attending a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) must take the Law School Admission Test. The LSAT is administered by the LSAC and given only four times a year at designated testing centers. The test consists of five sections, four of which count toward one's score, and a writing sample. It is designed to measure students' reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and analytical reasoning.

Take advantage of test preparatory materials. The LSAC provides free resources to study for the LSAT. Students should examine the types of questions asked and take practice tests, so that they have an idea of the time needed to answer questions and develop test-taking strategies.

Step 3: Earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree

Law school typically takes three years to complete. In the first year of law school, students learn about general legal topics, such as legal writing, civil procedures, torts, and ethics. The remaining two years is spent focusing on a legal specialization: litigation, in this case.

Topics covered in litigation programs include trial advocacy, evidence, criminal procedures, federal law, juvenile law, class action law, intellectual property law, and discrimination law. Civil and criminal litigation are common areas of study, though specialty clinics focused on constitutional litigation, environmental litigation, and even Supreme Court litigation are available at some schools. Students typically must complete internships, clinics, and moot court competitions.

To get the most out of your graduate degree, choose a law school with a focus on litigation. Aspiring litigators should enroll in law schools with litigation certificate options and clinics, particularly in the type of litigation they're interested in practicing. Though law schools will surely cover litigation and offer various litigation electives, concentrated coursework and practical experience in litigation clinics are extremely valuable.

You can also get a summer job related to the legal field. Law students can seek part-time work for government agencies or for various organizations' legal departments. The career-specific experience can help a prospective litigator secure a job after completing law school and becoming licensed.

Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

To legally practice law in any state, a law school graduate must pass a written bar exam. There is no nationwide bar exam; instead, it is designed and administered by each state's bar licensing agency. One must be a graduate from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved program to sit for the bar exam. In most states the exam is taken over a 2-day period, but in a few states it takes three. The bar exam covers state laws and general legal topics.

Step 5: Gain Job Experience

After graduating and being admitted to the bar, one can seek entry-level work as a litigation attorney. Since competition for full-time positions is strong, recent graduates may take on multiple temporary positions to further develop their skills. After working in the field for several years, they might advance to litigation positions for larger companies or to go into private practice or a partnership.

To really find your perfect fit, consider relocation. Since job availability can vary greatly among regions, a lawyer's ability to move to another state can factor into employment status. Passing the bar exam in multiple states is often necessary to advance in this field.

To recap, with an undergraduate degree, law degree and licensure, litigators can make about $116,000 a year to negotiate disputes that go to court.

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