What Dispute Resolution / Litigation Lawyers Do
When most people consider different types of law careers, dispute resolution and litigation is one of the top choices. These attorneys focus on civil matters, or person-to-person issues, as opposed to those that involve criminal charges or negotiating contracts.
A dispute resolution lawyer helps people who believe they have been wronged in some way, either by another person or an entity, like a corporation. This may be by going through the courts (litigation), in which case the person filing the complaint (plaintiff) must prove how he was harmed by the actions of the other party (defendant), and the defendant has the opportunity to prove to a judge and/or jury how he is innocent or did not play the role the plaintiff says he did.
However, most cases do not result in courtroom litigation. Instead, the dispute resolution lawyer will usually be involved in arbitration or mediation proceedings. With mediation, the goal is to help the two parties reach a mutually-agreeable consensus. Arbitration is more like litigation, but the arbitrator calls the shots, instead of a judge and jury.
Regardless of which type of dispute resolution is used, it’s the lawyer’s job to look out for the best interests of his client and try to get the client’s needs met. Sometimes this involves the defendant paying the plaintiff, but it may also include non-financial stipulations. This might be the case if the defendant is a business and the business’ policy caused harm to the plaintiff. The plaintiff could request that the defendant change his policies as part of their agreement.
Contrary to popular belief, plaintiffs often want an apology, admittance of wrongdoing, or corrective action to be taken, over financial reparations. It’s also up to the attorney to understand the client’s motivations, so he can focus on the client’s desired outcome with his strategy.
Who would enjoy a career in Dispute Resolution / Litigation Law?
A career in dispute resolution can be very emotionally rewarding for someone who is a skilled negotiator and wants to “right wrongs.” Because no two cases are ever quite the same, individuals entering into the field must have a passion for research and be willing to commit themselves to the lengthy education and licensing process.
Who mightn't like the career?
While the profession can be emotionally rewarding, it can also take a toll on people who invest themselves in their job. When cases go to arbitration or litigation, the final result is out of the lawyer’s hands, and it’s possible to lose a case or not get the settlement the plaintiff deserves. Knowing that a person’s future or well being largely rests on how well the lawyer makes his case, it can be a very stressful career; one with a heavy burden.
It’s also worth noting that some dispute resolution lawyers only take cases they feel they can win and don’t charge clients unless they do. This kind of business model can make it difficult to earn a reasonable living, particularly if the attorney isn’t selective about the cases he accepts. Litigation may also involve long-hours, so those who prefer a more balanced lifestyle should consider whether the pressures and commitments required will be a fit.
Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process.
Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation.
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Moving into Dispute Resolution / Litigation Law from another career
It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.
Graduate / Associate
Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.
Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.
Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.
It’s fairly rare for dispute resolution lawyers to travel, unless they’re part of a large firm, have a good reputation and are attracting clients from a distance, or represent large companies.
Entry Level: According to data from PayScale, lawyers beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $69,000 in the United States, £41,440 in the United Kingdom, CAD$69,920 in Canada, and AU$64,765 in Australia.
Mid-Career: USD$96,900, £62,720, CAD$98,800, AU$97,274.
Experienced: USD$115,600, £68,320, CAD$123,880, AU$110,011.
Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With the additional payments, an experienced attorney can easily double his salary.
Why Dispute Resolution / Litigation Lawyers move on
The burnout rate is somewhat high for those trying to make it up the ladder in a larger law firm, particularly in the first couple of years. The ongoing stress and emotional weight of the position can also cause people to seek less-demanding careers.