Criminal litigation involves the government’s prosecution of a person because of an alleged commission of a crime. Criminal laws (federal, state, and local statutes) define criminal offenses. Criminal behavior is punished by imposing a fine or imprisonment on the offender. All criminal proceedings are initiated by a government entity. General civil litigation, on the other hand, involves disputes among private parties or litigation with the government that does not involve allegations of a criminal offense. A civil lawsuit is initiated by one person against another person, business, or government entity. There can be multiple plaintiffs (person suing) and multiple defendants (persons being sued).
Civil law includes federal, state, and local statutes that govern civil or private rights and remedies. Civil lawsuits are filed to enforce or protect a civil right or to remedy or prevent a civil wrong. Civil wrongs are called torts. Tort lawsuits include actions based on negligence, malpractice, wrongful death, invasion of privacy, nuisance, and other civil wrongs. Civil litigation covers a broad range of substantive law. In addition to torts, civil disputes include contract and real estate matters, bankruptcy, insurance disputes, will contests and other probate matters, landlord-tenant controversies, patent infringements, divorce and child custody matters, and labor disputes.
Civil procedure refers to the procedural rules courts use to manage civil lawsuits. Procedural rules regulate service of process (notice that a lawsuit has been filed), pleadings, pre-trial discovery, trial procedures, evidence, witnesses, remedies, and judgments. Procedural rules also provide for pretrial settlements and alternative dispute resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation. Arbitration and mediation are informal methods for resolving civil disputes. Procedural rules govern appeals to a higher court.
Lawyers who represent clients in civil lawsuits are called trial lawyers or litigators. Trial lawyers need to know both the substantive law relating to the subject matter of the lawsuit and the procedural rules of the court in which the lawsuit is filed. In order to argue their cases in court, trial lawyers must have strong verbal skills and strong legal research and writing skills. Drafting pleadings and writing legal briefs is a large part of a litigation practice. Some trial lawyers specialize in a particular type of civil lawsuit, such as product liability, employment, or zoning.