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Looking for Civil Litigation Experience? Try Criminal Law

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 12, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you're a law student, a recent graduate, or even a new associate, here's a tip: Consider a career in criminal law with the District Attorney's office or the Public Defender.

"But," you say, "I couldn't care less about criminal law. I went to law school so I could become a civil litigator!" That might be true, but what will you do after you inevitably leave this job, downtrodden and depressed? A career of only a few years in criminal law could do you some good and give your resume some valuable litigation credibility.

Trial by Fire

The biggest argument in favor of spending a few years with the DA or the PD is that you get trial experience. A lot of it. Even newly minted prosecutors and defenders are thrown into the Lion's Den fairly early on, even if it is only to prosecute misdemeanors or sit second-chair for felony trials.

Actual experience in the courtroom is something that your four-month law school internship can't really prepare you for. "Practice-ready" is, as we've mentioned before, sort of a sham because you're not ready to do anything. (And, by the way, for the law students reading this: Nobody cares what you did in law school. As you'll quickly find out, employers start counting your experience from post-taking the bar, at the earliest.)

How Do We Do It? Volume!

Even working for a civil litigation firm doesn't guarantee you'll see a trial. Lots of civil litigation never goes to trial, and when it does, it's entrusted to the trial experts in the firm: partners or senior associates who specialize in it. At your civil litigation firm, you'll likely spend your first years chained to the word processor.

DAs and PDs, on the other hand, always need trial litigators because there are so many cases in various states of trial (and constitutional safeguards in favor of speedy trials mean things move fairly quickly, unlike in civil litigation, where "stalling" is the watchword). Criminal litigators are in court every day, they get to practice skills that civil litigation associates usually don't, and those skills are readily transferable. Jury selection, openings and closings, making objections, arguing motions, and developing theories of the case are all skills that can be readily transferred to civil litigation.

Consequently, if your real goal is to get into civil litigation, being a criminal litigator is a big plus for your resume. You'll get way more courtroom experience in your first years of criminal litigation than you would in your first years of civil litigation. This means your civil firm doesn't have to spend precious money training you: The taxpayers already did that for them!

Editor's Note, January 7, 2016: This post was first published in January 2015. It has since been updated.

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