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Why litigation experience matters when choosing a lawyer

When the big law firms hire lawyers, they often look to recent law school graduates, evaluating them by their grades, their class rank and other simple metrics. And many of these new hires turn out to be excellent lawyers: they’re smart, hard-working and committed. But anyone who has worked in the law for a while will tell you that there’s no substitute for experience.

But experience isn’t important only for the person hiring lawyers at a law firm. It can be crucial for clients.

‘The whole lawyer’

In a 2016 report, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System surveyed more than 24,000 lawyers to ask them what qualities were the most important when hiring a new lawyer. The organization compiled the results and found that the most important qualities respondents talked about were professional competency, legal skill and personal character. Together, these qualities make up what the IAALS calls “the whole lawyer.”

The study also found that less than 25% of practicing lawyers feel that new lawyers have the skills they need. They may have learned a lot about the law in school, but that doesn’t always mean they have the skills to do the job.

Important skills

Some of the important skills that are best acquired through legal experience are:

  1. Courtroom skills: When a case goes to trial, skillful questioning of witnesses and presentation of evidence can make all the difference. Law students can get a taste of these skills through mock trials and other exercises, but ultimately, they need to pick up the skills in practice.
  2. Negotiation: Most civil cases don’t go to trial. Instead, they are settled out of court through negotiation. Often, these negotiations are lengthy and demanding. It can be difficult for a lawyer to balance the need to aggressively represent their client with the desire to reach a settlement. Experience negotiators know when to push and when to give.
  3. Efficiency: The work of being a lawyer takes time. This is true whether a lawyer is experienced or not. But generally speaking, an experienced lawyer can work faster and more efficiently. This can save time and expenses for their clients.
  4. Client relations: Compared to a new lawyer, a lawyer who has worked with many clients over the years can more easily identify a client’s concerns. They can explain legal concepts and walk clients through how procedures will play out, easing their clients’ minds.

These qualities are important in most areas of the law, but experience also matters at the level of the practice area. A client who needs help with issues in business law can benefit from seeking out a lawyer who has experience in that practice area, just as a client who needs help with a divorce can benefit from the help of a lawyer who has experience with family law.