Litigation / Dispute Resolution

Is being a lawyer the same thing as being a litigator?

Not exactly. Litigators are lawyers, but not all lawyers are litigators. Lawyers who focus on litigation handle cases that go through criminal or civil court, whereas many lawyers do legal work that usually doesn’t require going to court. (See Regulatory Law and Business Law.)

However, litigation practice has evolved in recent years. Despite what you see in the movies and on TV, only a small percentage of all court cases go to jury trial. In fact, each year in Texas, less than 1% of civil cases and only 3% of criminal cases go to jury trial. As a result, litigators need much more than just trial advocacy skills to effectively represent their clients.

What if I want to be a criminal lawyer? Aren’t they primarily litigators?

Yes, but as mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of criminal cases are settled through a plea bargain, which is a negotiation between the prosecutor and the defendant. Jury trials like you see on Law & Order are only a fraction of what criminal lawyers — both prosecutors and defense lawyers — actually do.

What else do I need to know about litigation and dispute resolution?

Negotiation is a skill you learn in law school, because it’s fundamental to all legal practice. For example, in criminal law, you may best protect your client by negotiating an acceptable plea deal. In civil law, litigation is expensive and can take years. That’s why more judges, businesses and many lawyers are using alternative processes such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration to settle legal disputes without going to trial.

The term for this is “Alternative Dispute Resolution” [here we call it "Aggie Dispute Resolution"] or ADR. In fact, Texas was an early adopter of court-ordered mediation. Texas and Florida were the first states (in 1988) to give judges the power to order any civil case into mediation. Also, the Texas Arbitration Act, in addition to the Federal Arbitration Act, has led to the growth of arbitration as a preferred dispute resolution process for many Texas businesses. Our ADR courses and clinics will prepare you for all cases, not just those that go to trial.

What exactly are “mediation” and “arbitration”?

As mentioned above, litigating is expensive and time consuming, and ADR can be quicker and cheaper. It can also help the parties get more of what they want than litigation. Mediation involves a third-party neutral (the mediator) meeting with the parties to assist them to try to work out a mutually agreeable settlement to the legal dispute. Arbitration is different in that the neutral (the arbitrator) decides the case. As such, it tends to be a more formal process than mediation and one that is often binding on the parties. Many courts order disputing parties to mediation before setting a case for trial.

What kinds of lawyer jobs involve negotiation?

All of them! Every lawyer’s job involves negotiation. Lawyers need negotiation skills — not just for contracts, business deals or settlement agreements, but also more informal negotiations with clients, lawyers, judges and others.

What “dispute resolution skills” will I need?

At their cores, lawyers are problem solvers for their clients. You need to know how to identify possible solutions to your clients’ problems. You need to know how to negotiate. Depending on the type of law you practice, you will need to know how to represent clients in mediation and arbitration. With these skills, you can help clients resolve current disputes and advise clients how to avoid future disputes.

How will Texas A&M School of Law help me develop dispute resolution skills?

When it comes to developing critical skills, we’ve got you covered. We have a great cadre of talented faculty with vast expertise and experience in dispute resolution. We have experts in labor and employment, business negotiation and criminal case dispute resolution. In addition, our location in the Fort Worth/Dallas region — a hub of Fortune 500 companies and state and federal government offices — offers several opportunities for you to practice what you’ve learned in clinics and in the classroom.

What about strong litigation skills?

Of course, we offer numerous courses that will build your litigation skills. These range from litigation-specific courses such as a Trial Advocacy Practicum and Texas Criminal Law Practicum to advanced courses in Texas Criminal Procedure and Texas Trials & Appeals. You can also take specialized courses like Civil Rights Litigation and Construction Law and workshops such as Scientific Criminal Evidence, Deposition Skills & Pretrial Motions.

When can I start learning all these skills?

You can start right away. As a 1L, you will have the opportunity to:

  • Engage in hands-on negotiation exercises in your first semester of Criminal Law.
  • Argue a trial-level motion in your Legal Research & Writing class.
  • Work with acting instructors on public speaking skills in our Professionalism and Leadership Program.
  • Adapt your communication style to various target audiences through communications workshops.

What about acquiring skills after my 1L year?

You can choose from a variety of advanced dispute resolution courses. Many of these courses are smaller classes that feature more direct, personalized feedback from your professors. You can also take specialized courses such as The Business Negotiator, Advanced Issues in Criminal Justice, and ADR in the Workplace.

Are there opportunities to try these skills out while I’m in law school?

Absolutely! Through our numerous Centers, Clinics and Programs, you will find the practical experience that is most suitable for your career plans.

  • Our award-winning Advocacy Program encompasses mock trial, moot court and ADR competitions.
  • Family and Veterans Advocacy Clinic allows you to represent actual clients in court for family law and Social Security disability cases.
  • Innocence Project allows you to work with the Innocence Project of Texas in cases of potential wrongful convictions in Texas, which had the largest number of exonerations of any state in 2014.

Whom should I contact if I have more questions?

You can contact any of our dispute resolution faculty experts: Cynthia Alkon, Peter Reilly, and Nancy Welsh.