When many people think of lawyers, they don’t think of civil litigation attorneys.
Civil litigation attorneys are some of the most common types of lawyers, despite what many non-attorneys might think. Many people believe that most lawyers practice criminal law, but that’s not the case. But what exactly is the difference between a civil and criminal attorney? Here are a few differences.
The Type of Law They Practice
The biggest difference between criminal and civil litigation lawyers is the type of law they practice. As you might expect, criminal attorneys practice criminal law, which deals with the government imposing criminal punishment on an individual. In contrast, civil law deals with legal disputes among private citizens and is less about punishing a wrongdoer (although punishment is often possible) and more about compensating someone for his or her loss due to the fault of the wrongdoer.
Their Time in the Courtroom
Both civil and criminal law requires attorneys to spend time in the courtroom. Both criminal and civil lawyers will spend time talking to juries and cross-examining witnesses. However, it’s much more common for criminal attorneys to be in court compared to civil attorneys. It’s common for an experienced civil litigator to practice for decades, but complete an actual trial only a few dozen times. On the flipside, rookie criminal attorneys fresh out of law school can find themselves with several trials under their belt their first year on the job.
One of the reasons for this difference is that in most criminal justice systems, all defendants end up in court for at least preliminary matters, such as setting bail and arraignment. In a civil case, it’s possible for the parties to never step into court until the day of trial. And even then, many cases settle the day trial begins.
What’s on the Line for Their Clients
In the criminal realm, a lot more is potentially at stake. Criminal penalties can differ, but usually involve fines, jail time or even death. With the civil practice of law, only money is at issue. If someone loses a civil case, they almost never have to worry about going to jail or losing their life. In the vast majority of cases, the loser of a civil case merely writes a check to the winner.
This difference in what’s on the line is one of the biggest reasons why criminal attorneys find themselves in court and at trial much more often than civil attorneys. It’s a lot easier for parties in a civil lawsuit to reach a settlement agreement when only money is at issue. In fact, any win in court can be a waste of time and money, given how long litigation can last. On the other hand, when several years in prison seem certain—even with a plea bargain (the criminal court’s version of a settlement)—a criminal defendant may be much likelier to risk going to trial.