Understanding the Lawsuit Process: From Start to Finish

By Shounak S. Dharap

Most people have a vague idea of what a lawsuit entails, often based on dramatized TV shows like “Suits” or “Law and Order.” However, these representations are far from the reality of civil litigation, which involves one entity suing another in court. Let’s break down the actual steps involved in a lawsuit, highlighting the crucial stages from client intake to potential appeals.

Client Intake

The lawsuit process begins with client intake. If you’ve suffered harm and seek legal advice, you’ll reach out to a lawyer. Many plaintiff’s lawyers work on a contingency basis, meaning they take a percentage of the final settlement or verdict, and often provide free initial consultations. This allows you to discuss your case without upfront costs. During this phase, the lawyer will assess the merits of your case. If they decide not to take your case, it might be due to reasons like lack of expertise in that particular area or capacity issues. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the merit of your case. It’s crucial to get multiple opinions if one lawyer declines, ensuring you’ve explored all avenues.


Once a lawyer takes your case, the investigation phase begins. Your lawyer will gather all relevant information about the incident, including documents, correspondence, and social media posts. This comprehensive gathering of facts helps in understanding the full scope of the case and determining the legal claims to bring forward. The lawyer will want to know everything about the incident: how it happened, where it happened, who was involved, and why it happened. They will also gather any evidence you have, such as photos, emails, or witness statements. Based on this information, your lawyer will draft a legal complaint to file in court, laying the groundwork for your case.

Pre-Filing Requirements

Before filing the lawsuit, certain pre-filing requirements may need to be met. These can include sending notices or letters as mandated by specific laws. For instance, under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, you need to obtain a right-to-sue letter before filing a lawsuit. Your lawyer will guide you through these requirements to ensure compliance with the relevant laws. Additionally, your lawyer might suggest sending a demand letter to the opposing party, outlining your claims and the compensation sought. This can sometimes lead to a settlement without the need for a lawsuit, saving time and costs.


Once initial motions are resolved, the case enters the discovery phase. This involves both sides exchanging information through requests for documents, interrogatories, and depositions. Discovery is a crucial part of building your case, as it allows both parties to gather evidence and prepare for trial. Depositions require individuals to testify under oath, providing detailed accounts related to the case. These sessions can be lengthy and require thorough preparation. Both parties may also hire experts to support their arguments, such as medical professionals or industry specialists, who will provide opinions based on the facts of the case.

Dispositive Motions

After discovery, defendants often file dispositive motions, such as motions for summary judgment. These motions argue that there is no case based on the facts, aiming to dismiss the lawsuit without a trial. If the court denies these motions, the case moves closer to trial. Your lawyer will vigorously oppose any such motions to ensure your case proceeds. These legal battles can be complex and time-consuming, often taking several months to resolve.

Mediation and Settlement

Before trial, parties may attempt to settle the case through mediation, a process facilitated by a neutral mediator. Settlement discussions can help avoid the high costs and risks of trial. Mediation allows both sides to negotiate and potentially reach a mutually acceptable resolution. It’s crucial to consider the risks and potential recovery before deciding to settle. Your lawyer will provide insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your case, helping you make an informed decision.


If the case doesn’t settle, it proceeds to trial. Trials are stressful and involve presenting your case to a jury (or a judge in a bench trial). Both sides will present evidence, call witnesses, and make legal arguments. During trial preparation, be aware that the opposing side may use tactics like surveillance to discredit your claims. The trial process can be daunting, with high stakes and intense scrutiny. However, your lawyer will be there to guide you, presenting your case effectively and advocating for your rights.

Post-Trial and Appeals

Winning at trial isn’t the end. The losing party can file post-trial motions or appeal the decision. Appeals involve higher courts reviewing the case to ensure the law was correctly applied. This process can add years to the lawsuit, emphasizing the importance of patience and communication with your lawyer. Appeals focus on legal arguments rather than factual disputes, scrutinizing whether the trial was conducted fairly and according to the law. If the appellate court finds errors, it may reverse the decision or remand the case for a new trial.


The lawsuit process is complex and lengthy, often taking two to three years for resolution. It’s designed to ensure fairness and due process, though it can be frustrating. Regular communication with your lawyer is essential to stay informed and understand the status and progression of your case. Remember, the legal process is a marathon, not a sprint. While it may be challenging, having a dedicated lawyer by your side ensures your rights are protected and your case is handled with the utmost care. If you ever feel lost or frustrated, just pick up the phone and talk to your lawyer—they are there to help you navigate this intricate journey.


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