When you're charged with a crime, you call a criminal lawyer. When you are being sued, or you want to sue someone, you call a civil lawyer. In non-criminal litigation, civil lawyers serve the same function as prosecutors and defense attorneys. In a personal injury case, for example, the plaintiff's attorney tries to prove that the defendant caused the injury and should pay damages. The defense attorney tries to prove the opposite.
Civil Lawyer Job Description
Once a plaintiff or a defendant hires a civil attorney, that attorney takes over the litigation. Although he has to defer to their client on questions such as whether to accept a settlement offer, the attorney is in charge of the nitty-gritty tasks, such as:
- Interview everyone involved to build the case.
- Take depositions from witnesses.
- Communicate with the other party's attorneys and the court.
- File motions, briefs and other documents, as needed.
- Serve discovery requests on the other party, in which you are asking for specific information. In a divorce case, discovery involves having spouses list their financial resources and assets.
- Hire expert witnesses.
- Negotiate a settlement with the other side's attorneys.
- Present the case before a jury or a judge.
Civil Lawyer Education
The civil lawyer education requirements look much like the education for a criminal attorney. You have to graduate from an accredited law school with a Juris Doctor, abbreviated as a J.D. degree. To get into law-school, you usually need at least a bachelor's degree.
Although aspiring undergrads may refer to themselves as pre-law, there's no actual pre-law major, at time of writing. It's a mindset that you're taking courses with an eye toward entering law school after you complete your bachelor's degree or soon after. Popular pre-law majors include political science, economics, business administration, history, English and rhetoric. Other majors are acceptable too, as law schools like to recruit law students from diverse academic backgrounds.
Once you graduate, you take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Almost all schools, particularly if they're accredited, require a good LSAT score, along with a high GPA. You'll also need recommendation letters from two or three of your college professors.
While most of your law school classes will be the same as other types of lawyers, you'll have the opportunity to take specialized courses that fit your interests. Civil law covers a variety of fields, so your curriculum may not match those of other civil attorneys. Your state bar may be able to help you find a mentor who can give you career and course advice.
After graduation, you will need to pass your licensing exam to become a member of the state bar, so that you are authorized to practice law.
Salary and Benefits
At time of writing, the salary range for civil lawyers is $46,390 to $164,064, with an average pay of $81,115. Benefits can increase that amount considerably. Bonuses run from $491 to $30,050, while profit sharing ranges from nothing to $48,298. Lawyers who own their own practices usually earn less than those who work for large law firms or as in-house business attorneys.
Specializations for Civil Lawyers
Civil law covers a broad range of subjects:
- Real estate law.
- Landlord/tenant law.
- Personal injury law.
- Toxic torts, involving litigation over exposure to asbestos and other dangerous substances.
- Divorce attorneys.
- Gay rights' attorneys.
- Contract law.
Most civil attorneys specialize in one field or in a couple of related fields.
Some businesses find it cheaper to set up or expand their in-house legal staff, rather than to pay an outside attorney on commission. Civil attorneys may find employment with banks, insurers and health care providers, among other businesses.
Job Growth Trends
Government projections for growth in the legal field are a mixed bag. On the plus side, the demand for attorneys is projected to grow steadily through at least 2026. However, law schools graduate more students than there are available job openings, so the increased competition for jobs works against the need for attorneys. Clients are also becoming more cost-conscious, and may insist on lower rates than in the past.