What is Litigation: An Overview of the Litigation Process

Litigation is a noun most of us are familiar with, but few outside the legal field understand the real definition. Litigation refers to the process of contesting and resolving disputes in the legal system. 

That is clearly a very general term, and it can refer to any sort of dispute, from medical malpractice to fighting a parking ticket in court. We will break down the litigation process into specific pieces, but many of these steps will look different depending on the case. 

Litigation vs. Lawsuit

Let us start with what litigation is not. Many people assume litigation means taking someone to court, and while the idea is correct, the vast majority of litigation never makes it into the courtroom. A formal lawsuit is a piece of litigation, but you’ll see that much of the litigation process takes place before the court is ever called into session.

The Litigation Process

Answering “what is litigation” really involves answering what each of its steps are. The litigation process can be broken down into five steps. Some of these steps can be broken down further into notable pieces of the litigation process:
  1. Investigation and Demands
  2. Demand Letters and Pre-Trial Negotiation
  3. Out-of-Court Options: Alternative Dispute Resolution
  4. Facilitation
    • Mediation
    • Arbitration
  5. The Courtroom
    • Discovery
    • Initial Motions
    • Trial
  6. Post-Trial Litigation
    • Post-Trial Litigation
We go through each of these steps in moderate detail to help you understand the main ideas of every step in the litigation process.

Investigation and Demands

Litigation has its start when a client approaches an attorney with a dispute. Whether a tenant has a mountain of unpaid rent, or a business partner made off with company profits, the attorney will review the potential client’s case. Should they accept the client, litigation begins in earnest.

The first part of the litigation is an informal investigation into the facts. The attorney will conduct research into the exact details, getting any and all accessible documentation and proof that builds into the client’s side of the case. This investigation is crucial for the next step in the litigation process, sending a demand letter.

Demand Letters and Pre-Trial Negotiation

The attorney or law firm will compose and deliver a demand letter (or eviction notice, or other forms of notification depending on the type of case). This demand letter takes all of the information gathered in the informal investigation, presents it to the offending party, and states desired compensation — typically higher than the attorney expects to receive. The goal of the demand letter is to convince the opposing party that there is such good evidence of their wrongdoing by law that the accuser would absolutely win if the case were to go to court. 

The defending party responds with a letter offering a lower amount of compensation — usually lower than they would be willing to pay — at which point there may be more counteroffers negotiating a settling price. If they can agree on a price, they settle, and the case never goes to court. The litigation process stops here in that instance.

Why Would Someone Settle Instead of Suing for the Full Amount?

The fact of the matter is: trial is expensive. Once a case goes to the courtroom, costs skyrocket as rules and regulations become more stringent. Suddenly you are paying for witness fees and costs, as well as creating mountains of extra work for the attorneys and law firms involved. Far from being synonymous with a courtroom lawsuit, most of the litigation process is spent trying to avoid the courtroom and save the money and time of everyone involved.

Out-of-Court Options: Alternative Dispute Resolution

If parties cannot reach an agreed settling price, the accusing party (referred to as the “plaintiff”) and the accused party (referred to as the "defendant") will usually seek “Alternative Dispute Resolution” — options for resolution other than a full-blown courtroom trial. This typically takes one of three forms: facilitation, mediation, or arbitration.

Facilitation: Facilitation is typically the least formal of the three alternative dispute resolutions mentioned here. It involves an unbiased attorney (or sometimes, a panel of attorneys) that helps the two parties negotiate and can decide on certain disputed facts or offer estimations of the actual value of damages. The goal of any alternative dispute resolution is an out-of-court settlement. 

Mediation: Still, an informal affair, mediations are similar to facilitations in many ways. An attorney, or panel, reviews facts, helps negotiate between parties, and seeks a settlement out of court. At the end of mediation or facilitation, the mediator will often set a specific dollar value on the case. This number can then be agreed to by both sides, or the case can move further towards the courtroom — and high expenses.

Arbitration: Arbitration is the most formal of the three mentioned here. It is also the most expensive, but still cuts costs relative to a real court case, as rules are less strict. less work is created for attorneys, and fewer people are involved. An arbitration is similar to an in-court case, but instead of a judge and jury, the case is presented to one or more attorneys who decide the verdict according to their understanding of the law.

These alternative dispute resolutions are usually conducted pre-trial, but they can also be invoked mid-trial to cut a case short and save further expense and time.

The Courtroom

When most people ask, “What is litigation,” this is the only step they think of. But even a lawsuit does not entirely take place in front of a judge and jury. There are steps to this highly formal, highly regulated piece of the litigation process. 

Discovery: Similar to the pre-trial investigation process, discovery is essentially a court-empowered investigation that is conducted pre-trial. In discovery, the court can mandate that parties disclose relevant documents or acquiesce to legally structured interviews called depositions. Both sides gather the facts in as much detail as they can, relying on court reporters and other law firm staff to help collect and organize the information into usable knowledge. 

Pre-Trial Motions: Motions are made to the court, typically to establish disputed facts. Rarely, if an attorney has an airtight case, they can move to dismiss the trial entirely, but this requires such obvious truth in favor of one party that it almost never happens.

Trial: Finally, the trial begins. Trials revolve around disputed facts — things that, if true, will clearly incriminate the other party by law. The “trier of fact," usually a jury, hears arguments and presented evidence and simply rules what is and is not true. Then the legal system can appropriately declare whether laws are broken or not. In a normal jury trial, the judge is there only to rule on matters of law, as well as instruct the jury on the laws relevant to the case at hand. There is a jury-less “bench trial” where the judge is also the trier of fact, but this is less common. 

After a trial, if either party is unhappy with the outcome or believes mistakes were made that, if reversed, would change the outcome, they can appeal to a higher court and extend the trial process.

Litigation After Trial

Even when the trial is finished, the litigation process is not. Lawyers can still negotiate how compensation is paid, among numerous other details. Closing a case has its own set of rules to be followed, but finally, both parties can stop accruing expenses after their legal dispute. 

How long does it take to litigate a case? Litigating a case can take as short as a few weeks if a demand letter is simply agreed to, or decades if courts and trials continue getting appealed and extended. This is one of the biggest costs to be considered in whether you fight a dispute legally — time. Be prepared to accrue expenses in both dollars and hours.

What is the difference between a lawyer and a litigator?  A common question, the simple answer is that all litigators are lawyers but not all lawyers are litigators. There are lawyers who do business law, oversee contract signing or numerous other duties that do not involve resolving or fighting disputes. A litigator is a type of lawyer whose sole job is to represent parties in legal disputes. 

How does NAEGELI fit into the litigation process? NAEGELI Deposition & Trial offers top-notch legal services to the attorneys who litigate cases. We have highly qualified administrative staff that helps in investigation and document management; certified court reporters for depositions, alternative dispute resolutions, and trials; trial support staff who excel in presenting case evidence in a convincing and smooth-flowing manner; translators and interpreters, video conferencing experts, transcriptionists, you name it. At any stage of litigation, NAEGELI Deposition & Trial helps the best attorneys do what they do best. Ask your lawyer if they use NAEGELI Deposition & Trial’s best-in-the-nation services while they litigate your case.

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