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Court Proceedings (and How to Survive Them)

For a non-lawyer (and even for some lawyers), a courtroom can be a strange and scary place. Court proceedings are arcane and can be intimidating. This is why it is always far better to try to settle or mediate your dispute outside of court. However, sometimes it is impossible to even talk with the other side, let along negotiate some kind of agreement that would make stepping inside a courtroom unnecessary. If you have fallen into this situation, you will probably either need to hire an attorney or learn how best to represent yourself in court (called pro se representation).

Finding and Hiring an Attorney

If you have concluded that your case is worth enough to justify you hiring an attorney, the first step is finding an attorney to represent you.

After this, you should talk with your attorney about what you should expect during the course of your case. If your attorney thinks that your case has a good chance of settling, you will want to make sure that you attend all proceedings where settlement negotiation occurs. In addition, make sure to tell your attorney that you want to stay informed about all the developments in your case. Your attorney will be able to tell you exactly what is going on at any given time, explain how various court proceedings work, and will probably also be able to tell you about what he thinks may happen next. Remember, you hire your attorney to be your legal expert.

What many people do not know is that a large majority of all civil cases settle well before they enter a courtroom. If you have the opportunity to settle your case before you have to go to court, you should take the time to seriously consider this option. Remember that if you settle a case, you have a guaranteed result, whereas if you go to court, you are at the mercy of the court proceedings.

Pro Se Representation

Often times representing yourself during courtroom proceedings makes more sense that hiring a legal professional to do the work for you. Some types of cases are simple enough that you will not need extensive legal knowledge or experience in order to get through your case. As an example, oftentimes divorces where both parties are happy to talk and work with each other can be brought to court without attorneys on either side. To help you out, here is a brief guide of some of the things that you may need to know in order to represent yourself in court.

To start a case, you will often need to file a civil complaint. You can find many blank complaint forms online from various websites and other sources, including FindLaw's form section. After filing out the form, you will need to file it with the court, as well as serve the civil complaint to the defendant in your case. In order to serve the civil complaint, you will need to follow the service rules for your state, but it is often acceptable to have someone over the age of 18 personally deliver the complaint to the defendant.

Now your case has officially started and you are in the "discovery" phase, where you get to find out information from the other side. This can be done by sending a form to the other side that asks questions that must be answered truthfully. This is called an "interrogatory." You can also ask the other side show up to answer questions in person, which is called a "deposition."

When the day of your trial shows up, you will need to show up to court in professional attire and proceed with the trial. This will involve calling and questioning witnesses, as well as asking questions of any witnesses that the other side calls, which is called "cross-examining." 

One option that many pro se plaintiffs and defendants choose is to hire an attorney, not to represent them in court, but rather to be a coach and adviser of sorts (to explain the different court proceedings and terminology, for instance). This option has become more and more popular recently with the number of freshly minted attorneys coming out of law school each year. As little as 20 years ago, hiring a 'law coach' would have cost almost as much as hiring an attorney to represent you, but there are many attorneys now that are more flexible in regards to their billing rate. The attorney that you hire as your coach should be able to help you with legal research, drafting documents, helping you with deadlines and information you about any peculiarities of your local court proceedings.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified attorney to help you with
preparing for and dealing with going to court.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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