The pre-trial process can be both stressful and confusing for anyone who is involved in a court case for the first time. However, the process can be much easier when you know what to expect from your attorney and from the opposing party. This article will describe the stages of a case, from hiring an attorney to just before the start of the trial.
Hiring an Attorney. When you first meet or speak with a firm, your case will be first be evaluated by a secretary, paralegal, or an attorney. At this stage, the firm is deciding whether to take your case. Be sure to know the details of your situation and bring any related documents. If the attorney declines to take your case, do not take the rejection personally. Simply call a different firm and bring all of your documents to the next appointment. For complex cases, the evaluation process may continue into the investigation stage.
Investigation. Once an attorney has agreed to take a case by presenting you a retainer agreement to sign, and oftentimes before, they conduct a full investigation. This may include collecting related documents, interviewing witnesses, visiting the scene of the crime/accident, or speaking with other attorneys. Depending on the case, this stage can take a few hours or several weeks. Once the attorney has the necessary information, he can begin to file legal documents with the court.
Pleadings. This stage makes your case official. The attorneys on each side will file documents with the court that outline their respective cases, and may try to get the court to decide the case immediately. Your case may go forward, settle, or be thrown out at this stage. Therefore, it is important to stay in contact with your attorney to keep updated. If the court accepts the pleadings, then the case moves on to the discovery stage.
Discovery. Discovery is about getting information from the opposing party. Since the person you are suing (or the person suing you) usually does not want to help your case, your attorney makes formal information requests that the other side can not refuse. These requests usually take the form of interrogatories (written questions), depositions (structured interviews), and document requests. In general, the stage of discovery is the most expensive and time-intensive in the trial process.
Motions. Motions are requests by an attorney for a court order. The attorney may request a change in the trial schedule, to move the case to a different court, or for the judge to decide the case before it goes to trial. Motions occur throughout the pre-trial process, and are often an important part of the case.
Settlement Conferences. Many judges encourage settlement conferences after discovery. These conferences are an attempt to get the parties to reach an agreement before the trial begins. The judge may simply discuss the lawsuit in general, or may call in another judge to review the merits of the case and the likely outcome of trial. While most cases will settle at these conferences or in a previous stage of pre-trial, a few will continue into the actual trial proceedings.
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