Litigation Law




What is Litigation Law?

Litigation law refers to the rules and practices involved in resolving disputes in the court system. The term is often associated with tort cases, but litigation can come about in all kinds of cases, from contested divorces, to eviction proceedings. Likewise, most people think of litigation as synonymous with trial work, but the litigation process begins long before the first witness is called to testify. In fact, the vast majority of litigated cases never reach the inside of a courtroom.

For those looking to determine if a legal matter falls within the category of litigation, consider whether a lawsuit would solve the matter. If so, the case qualifies as litigation, and an attorney practicing in this area should be retained. If there is no potential for a lawsuit, because there is no controversy or because all of the parties are in agreement, then the issue cannot be described as litigation. Most non-litigation matters, such as property sales, estate planning, business formations, etc., are handled by attorneys practicing “transactional” law.

The best way to understand litigation law is to become familiar with the basic stages of a lawsuit. In most tort cases, such as a negligence lawsuit stemming from an automobile accident, the Civil Rules of Procedure in force in that jurisdiction will apply. These rules provide the legal requirements the parties must comply with at each step in the litigation process. Other types of cases may have their own specific procedural rules for the litigants to follow, but the same general outline will apply.

Demand Letters and Initial Negotiations

In a typical legal dispute, the parties will first discuss the matter with each other directly. Once it becomes clear that a common understanding will not be reached, one or both sides will retain an attorney. After investigating the case, the attorney will usually send the other party a “demand letter.” As the name suggests, this letter describes what the party receiving the letter must do to avoid further legal action. The letter may demand the payment of a certain amount of money, the halting of a particular activity, and so on.

Parties who receive a demand letter from the opposing side may respond by offering to do or pay less than requested, or they may issue demands of their own, or they may decide to do nothing at all. At this juncture, the future litigants have no obligation to cooperate and try to reach an agreement. But with the expense and uncertainty of a lawsuit looming over them, many people opt to play it safe and settle the matter informally at this stage.

Filing a Lawsuit and Conducting Discovery

If a dispute cannot be put to rest through the initial negotiations, then one party will file a formal lawsuit. If either party has not yet hired an attorney, now is the time to do so. The technical rules of filing and responding to a lawsuit are complex, and even small mistakes can have a drastic effect on the ability of the litigants to obtain relief or successfully defend their interests. For example, some personal injury claims have a statute of limitation as short as 12 months. Failure to properly file suit within that time will permanently bar the plaintiff from recovering compensation.

Shortly after a lawsuit is filed, the parties will conduct discovery. Discovery refers to the mandatory exchange of documents and other information between the parties. It will often represent the bulk of the litigation work performed throughout the entire case. Preparing and responding to discovery requests is tedious, and in the field of litigation, tedious means expensive. Besides the exchange of physical evidence relating to the case, discovery also involves the deposing (formal interviewing) of witnesses.

Motions, Trial, and Appeal

The next step in the litigation process is for the parties to review everything they learned in discovery, at which point the defendant will likely file a motion for summary judgment. Basically, the defendant argues to the judge that even if the plaintiff’s factual contentions are true, the law does not recognize the situation as one in which the defendant will be held responsible. If the judge agrees, the case is over and the plaintiff loses. If the judge denies the motion, the case will proceed to trial.

Finally, after what can amount to years in the pre-trial stages of litigation, the merits of the case will be heard by the judge or a jury. Witnesses will be called to testify, evidentiary exhibits will be submitted, and the attorneys for both sides will present argument as to why their clients deserve to win. A jury trial can potentially stretch on for weeks, and when it is over, the losing party will still have the right to appeal, which is almost certain to happen if a large money judgment is awarded to the winner.

Hiring a Lawyer Provides an Advantage

Even in small disputes, an experienced litigator can give one party the upper hand. If you have been sued, or if you need to enforce your legal rights, merely hiring a lawyer may lead the other side to think twice. And if the case does proceed to litigation, your lawyer will be there, fighting for you every step of the way.

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Know Your Rights!

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