Legal principles and procedures can have an impact on many important areas of a person’s life. Whether you are contesting a dispute or handling a transaction, you will want to take steps to protect your interests and assert your rights. If this involves going to court, for example, you should learn about the procedures that you will need to follow and the requirements for proving your case. If this involves completing forms, by contrast, you should make sure that you understand the documents and the commitments that you are making in them.
Hiring a lawyer, or at least consulting a lawyer, can make a significant difference in the outcome of a proceeding or transaction. However, if you choose to move forward without a lawyer, this section also discusses some common issues to bear in mind.
Lawsuits and the Court Process
Pursuing or fighting a lawsuit can be a complex and lengthy undertaking. Most cases do not go all the way to trial, ending instead in a settlement out of court. The first step in a lawsuit is filing the complaint and serving the complaint and summons on the defendant. The complaint outlines the grievances of the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) and the remedy that they want the court to provide. The defendant will respond with an answer that tells their side of the story, denying the plaintiff’s allegations in whole or in part. Sometimes the defendant will try to get the plaintiff’s case dismissed at this stage, arguing that the plaintiff does not have a valid claim under the law.
Assuming that the case advances past that motion, the parties will go through the discovery process. This involves gathering evidence related to the litigation through tools such as depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for production. Either party may file a motion for summary judgment during this stage if they believe that there are no facts in dispute, and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the court does not grant this type of motion, and the parties do not reach a settlement, the case will proceed to a trial before a judge or a jury. Once a verdict is issued in the trial, the losing party may appeal if they believe that a legal error affected the outcome.
Read more here about lawsuits and the court process.
The Role of a Lawyer
You should strongly consider retaining a lawyer if a case will have a significant impact on your life or involves complex subject matter. There is no real substitute for a trained professional who is familiar with the nuances of the laws and procedures governing your case. To find the right lawyer for the situation, you can ask for referrals from friends and family members, or you can seek advice from state bar associations and referral services. Or you can simply search for attorneys online and explore their websites to learn more about them. Before you hire an attorney, you should meet with them in person. You should make sure that they are experienced in your type of case and that you trust them and communicate well with them.
Fees and other key issues in the attorney-client relationship will be addressed in your representation agreement. The fee may be an hourly fee, a contingency fee, or a flat fee, or some combination of these. You should make sure that you understand how the fee will be calculated and how any additional costs of litigation will be covered. Also, you will want to review the representation agreement so that you understand your relationship with the attorney. For example, it will define the scope of their services and the actions that they can take without getting your permission.
Read more here about the role of a lawyer and the attorney-client relationship.
Representing Yourself Without a Lawyer
Some people feel that they would prefer to handle a dispute on their own, especially if the matter is relatively simple. If you choose to represent yourself, you should take extra care to make sure that you understand the law that governs your case and the steps that you need to take to achieve your desired outcome. For example, you will want to research the elements of a claim and gather evidence to support each of them (or attack them if you are the defendant). The courtroom setting can be intimidating, but careful preparation can help you feel more comfortable. If you prevail in a dispute and receive a judgment, you may need to pursue additional measures to collect the money that you are owed.
While most people associate legal matters with a courtroom and a judge or jury, there are many situations in which you can accomplish important goals by completing a form or signing an agreement. For example, you can arrange to leave property to your loved ones in a will or trust by completing certain documents and taking additional steps to make sure that they are valid under state law. If you are buying or selling a home, you can negotiate the purchase and sale contract without going to court. In yet another example, starting a business may involve filing specific paperwork and drafting internal governance documents, but you will not need to go to court to get your business running.
Read more here about ways to handle legal matters without a lawyer.
Alternatives to Court
Less adversarial forms of dispute resolution may offer useful alternatives to formal litigation. Arbitration and mediation are the two main examples of these processes. Mediation is a more flexible process than arbitration, since the mediator acts as a facilitator and does not have the authority to issue binding decisions. The parties essentially determine the outcome on their own with the mediator’s assistance and advice. By contrast, an arbitrator or an arbitration panel will make a binding decision that a court probably will not overturn. Arbitration is similar to trial in that the parties can present witnesses and other evidence, but the procedures are less strict than courtroom rules and often are shaped by the preferences of the parties. Arbitration and mediation can be voluntary or mandatory, depending on the situation.
Certain types of proceedings involving administrative law will unfold in the administrative system rather than a conventional court. Administrative law judges oversee this process and can conduct hearings that are similar to trials. Their decisions can be appealed to higher levels of the administrative system and sometimes to a court once administrative options are exhausted. Most often, administrative proceedings arise in claims for government benefits.
Read more here about alternative methods of dispute resolution.
Do I need a lawyer? This depends on the value and complexity of the case. If the case is simple and clear, you might not need a lawyer. If the stakes are high, or your case is complex, you might want an attorney.
What can a lawyer do for me? A lawyer can conduct legal research for you and negotiate with other parties or present your case in litigation. They also can advise you on your rights and obligations, among other things.
How do I know if I have a good case? You will need to research the applicable law and court decisions in your state to determine if you have a good case. You can do this on your own or with a lawyer.
When should I sue? You may want to sue if the other side does not respond to a demand letter or engage in non-adversarial forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation. Litigation is usually a last resort.
How do I collect a judgment? If the judgment debtor fails to pay the award promptly, you can contact them and demand that they pay it. If they fail to pay, you can try to seize their assets to pay it.