How to prepare for a career in civil litigation

Civil Litigation Pathway

NYU Law has produced some of the most extraordinary civil litigators in the United States, and indeed the world. An illustrative sample includes: the founding partners of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; the current chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore; the current and the former attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society of New York; the current general counsel of the United States Department of the Treasury; a current member of the National Labor Relations Board; and the founder of the Coalition for the Homeless. Their careers as civil litigators show the range and diversity of practice in this field.

Civil litigation involves the investigation, preparation, and resolution of civil disputes. Those disputes can involve many areas of substantive law, such as mergers and acquisitions, antitrust, health care, family relations, housing, employment, constitutional law, intellectual property, and so forth. Civil litigators work in the courts of the federal system, the 50 states, and foreign countries; they work in international tribunals and before arbitration panels; they work before administrative agencies and local zoning boards. They work for government, for private law firms, for non-profit advocacy organizations, for private corporations and public agencies, and in solo-practices wherever they choose. They work in New York and Paris, at The Hague and in the Delaware Chancery Court.

Civil litigators can work directly with clients, investigate issues, engage in “motion practice,” do trials, and engage in appellate advocacy. Litigation can be fast paced and challenging. Many of our students choose to enter this field. NYU graduates lead in becoming partners at New York-based law firms.

Students who hope to become civil litigators naturally should prepare by taking a serious course of studies in civil procedure and related subjects—enrolling in diverse courses that involve the development of skills for legal argument, courtroom practice (ranging from witness examination to appellate advocacy), statutory interpretation, constitutional argument, common law understanding, and brief writing. The focus can be on courts as well as alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as mediation and arbitration. Although many civil litigators are generalists who pride themselves on learning the substantive law on an as-needed basis, increasingly civil litigators are specialists, with expertise in specific fields. During one’s law school years, it would be useful to gain exposure to a range of substantive fields that might be pertinent to later professional opportunities. In addition, you might find that you have a passion for particular substantive issues—for example, art law and copyright issues—that will shape where you decide to work and the focus of your practice.

Core Courses

Every student at NYU Law studies Procedure during the first year of law school. Procedure is vital to anyone wanting to be a civil litigator, and is highly relevant to all students, whether they plan to practice in government, in business, or in the non-profit sector; whether they plan to litigate, to negotiate, to legislate, or to transact deals; whether they plan to work in the United States or abroad; whether their substantive focus is constitutional law, securities regulation, antitrust, international arbitrage, bankruptcy, intellectual property, and even criminal defense; and whether they plan to practice law or to become a scholar and teacher. The course offers a strong introduction to constitutional questions touching on separation of powers, federalism, individual rights, and institutional competence. It also provides an important opportunity for students to develop the skills of legal argument, reasoning by analogy, and sensitivity to fact development, as well as familiarity with the different professional roles of judge, litigant, counselor, reformer, and scholar. Later in their law school education all students also study professional ethics, a required course that provides an important foundation for a career in the law.