Clients often come to me with many misconceptions about lawsuits. For one, they tend to think that lawsuits do not last very long. I blame this largely on TV legal drama which shows attorneys fighting for their clients in a full courtroom within a week of being hired. I usually tell my clients to prepare themselves for at least a year in court if they get sued or want to be sued. Below I outlined the basic phases and anatomy of a lawsuit:
Phase 1—Initiation of the lawsuit legal research:
- Description: Case strategy, drafting and filing complaint, service of the defendant(s)
- Estimated Timeline: 2 to 4+ months.
Phase 2 – Answer/Counterclaim:
- Description: This phase of the civil lawsuit will depend on the other party’s response to the initial complaint. If the other party merely files an “answer” then the case moves quickly to discovery (Phase 3). If, however, the other party files a “motion to dismiss” in attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, a response is required and a potential amended complaint.
- Estimated Timeline: 2 to 6+ months
- Associated Third-Party Costs: $0-$300. Filing an answer does not cost money, but if you are a defendant and want to file counterclaims, there are court costs you have to pay.
Phase 3 – Discovery:
- Description: This phase is by far the most unpredictable and expensive part of the lawsuit for both the clients and civil dispute lawyers. This phase includes providing initial mandatory disclosures (if applicable), issuing discovery requests, subpoenas, depositions, and potential motions to compel (when a party does not comply with discovery). The fees and costs will vary greatly and sometimes unknown until the case begins and initial discovery has been exchanged.
Phase 4 – Pre-Trial Motions and Settlement Conferences
- Description: Once discovery is closed, the parties will prepare for trial and potentially have a settlement conference with the judge. The most common pre-trial motion is a “motion for summary judgment” when parties seek to have the judge issue a ruling on the case without a trial. Not all cases are eligible for summary judgment and we can not know until discovery is complete. Other motions include the court ruling on evidence in preparation for trial.
- Estimated Timeline: 2-4 months
Phase 5 – Trial Preparation and Trial
- Description: This includes preparing for trial and the trial itself. Preparing for trial means filtering through discovery to build the exhibits and trial strategy. The trial itself may take more than one day and hence, again, why it is difficult to predict the fee. However, as we get closer to this portion, we will have a better idea and can discuss accordingly.
- Estimated Timeline: 3 to 6+ months
Phase 6 – Collections
- Description: If a case does not settle and the defendant (assuming you are not the defendant) does not voluntarily pay the judgment order, then the plaintiff must proceed with collections by summoning the defendant back to court to testify about his or her assets, and the plaintiff can freeze the defendant’s bank accounts and garnish the defendant’s wages, if the defendant is employed. If the defendant ignores the summons, the plaintiff can have the defendant arrested and held in contempt of court. This process can take another 3-4 months and judgments can last up to 7 years and can be revived for additional 7-year installments up to 27 years. The only way to stop collection on a judgment is if a defendant files for bankruptcy.
The above rules apply to most types of cases but specifically in business litigation, contract law, civil disputes, and non-compete agreements. The only time a case is significantly shorter is if the case is a ‘small claims’ case, which is when there is less than $10,000 at issue.