Most people have never hired an attorney or gone to court for anything more serious than a traffic ticket. The process of litigation looks as mysterious to most people as fixing a car or coaching a chess team looks to me. Maybe this will help a little.
A civil case usually has six main stages: (1) pre-litigation negotiation; (2) the filing of initial pleadings; (3) disclosure and discovery; (4) dispositive motions; (5) trial; and (6) appeal. This process can be stopped if the parties settle which, statistically, happens more often than not.
Because litigation is burdensome, not only financially but in other ways as well, most lawyers will attempt to negotiate a settlement before filing the lawsuit. In my experience, these attempts succeed well under 50% of the time, generally because both parties are still emotionally upset about what was “done to them”. I will sometimes forego this step in those instances where the other side seems to be a bully or a conman: those parties generally have to be punched with a lawsuit before they will take my client seriously.
The plaintiff (the party which initiates the lawsuit) files a Complaint stating why the court has jurisdiction, alleging the key facts underlying the dispute, and the legal claims those facts give rise to.
The defendant (the other party) must then file an Answer which answers the statements made in plaintiff’s Complaint. The defendant may, at the same time, allege any claims he has against the plaintiff. Because you know the facts, you will have to work with your lawyer during the pleading period.
Disclosure and Discovery
A little over a month after the pleadings are completed, both sides have to file their mandatory disclosure. This is a process pretty much unique to Arizona. Both sides are required to state their legal claims, describe their factual position, state their position with respect to damages, identify their witnesses (lay and expert) and any witness statements, and produce all relevant documents. Again, you will have to work closely with your lawyer with respect to the disclosure.
Then, the parties enter the discovery period during which both sides use various discovery tools – interrogatories, requests for admission, requests for documents, request to inspect, depositions – to gain evidence for their own case and to force the other side to expose its case before trial. This period can be lengthy as the two sides fight over what they have to produce. This period can also get expensive if there are numerous depositions, especially if those depositions involve expert witnesses.
In most cases that have gone this far, one or both sides will file a motion – usually a motion for summary judgment – which basically asks that Court to hold that the evidence so favors the moving party’s case that there is no point in letting the case go to the jury. This might be because the evidence is overwhelmingly one-sided or because some point of law prohibits the other side from winning under the facts that have surfaced during discovery. Many times, these motions end the case (except for appeal), even though most judges are reluctant to take a case away from the jury.
This is when you get to see the samurai in your lawyer. I have done trials as short as a few hours and as long as two months. By the time you get out of discovery, your lawyer will have a good idea how long trial will go, but it is impossible to tell now with any certainty. The keys to that trial will probably be your lawyer’s preparation (I find I spend 3-5 hours on preparation for every hour in trial) and the relationship you establish with the jury (do they like, trust, and believe you?).
If you lose at trial or in summary judgment, your attorney will discuss with you your prospects on appeal. There are many bases for appeal, so we cannot generalize now. Depending on the case and the complexity of the issues, it could take quite a while before you get a ruling on your appeal.
Increasingly, courts are ordering mandatory settlement conferences after a certain number of days have passed since the pleading stage. This is not bad: you are not forced to settle, and the settlement judges are often very experienced and qualified. Sometimes, the parties will on their own, especially early in the case, seek out mediation before an experienced lawyer or retired judge at which the mediator will take turns talking to the parties and their lawyers in an effort to settle the case. We have had a lot of good experience with mediation.