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A Beginner’s Guide to Navigating the Litigation Process

On Behalf of | May 20, 2024 | Commercial Litigation

If you’ve just been handed a legal complaint, you might feel like you’re trying to read a foreign language. Suddenly, you’re expected to understand complex legal terms and meet strict deadlines – all while dealing with the stress of being sued. Fear not. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the basic litigation process from the standpoint of a defendant.

The Answer

After receiving a complaint, your first formal step in the legal process is to submit an “Answer.” Think of it as your opportunity to respond to each allegation made against you. Filing an Answer is critical, as ignoring it can lead to a default judgment, meaning the court may automatically decide in favor of the plaintiff without hearing your side of the story. Generally, you have a specific number of days to respond, so timely action is paramount.

In most cases you will have 20 days to submit your Answer to the court. This response will cover your stance on each point raised in the complaint, whether you agree, disagree, or don’t have enough information to take a position. On each count, you’re laying the foundation of your defense, setting the tone for your legal battle.

But be wary – not all lawsuits follow the same timeline. In certain cases, particularly those under a summary proceeding procedure, you may be required to respond within just 5 days. The time frame is often dictated by the statute under which you’re being sued, and the specific instructions will be detailed in the summons that came with your complaint. Read it carefully. While 20 days is standard for most civil cases, overlooking a shorter response period can have grave consequences, including a potential default judgment against you.


As a defendant, you’re not just limited to defense; you have the option to strike back with counterclaims. If you believe the plaintiff has wronged you in some related way, you can assert these when you respond to the complaint. It’s essentially telling the court, “Not only am I not liable, but the plaintiff actually owes me.”

Motion Practice

Early in the case, you might file motions to address issues without going to trial. A common one is the motion to dismiss, where you argue that the complaint doesn’t legally merit a lawsuit. If successful, the case can be resolved early in your favor.


Discovery is the phase where both sides gather evidence. You’ll exchange documents, take depositions, and submit interrogatories. This phase is all about building your case by uncovering facts, documents, and witness statements that support your defense.

Summary Judgment

Before trial, any party can file for summary judgment. This is a request for the court to decide the case or a specific issue within the case based on the evidence discovered, without going to trial. It’s arguing that even with all facts taken in the best light for the other side, there’s still no case.


Should your case go to trial, it’s showtime – all the evidence gathered will be presented before a judge or jury. Witnesses will testify, and legal arguments will be made. As a defendant, your job is to contest the plaintiff’s evidence and present your defense clearly.


If the trial doesn’t go your way, you might consider an appeal. An appeal scrutinizes the trial’s fairness and legal accuracy, not the facts of the case. You’re questioning whether the law was applied correctly with the existing evidence.


Though legal processes can be daunting, understanding the basic steps helps demystify what lies ahead. Remember, this guide isn’t a replacement for a good lawyer—it’s simply a roadmap. Consulting with a legal professional not only helps you navigate these steps but can also provide personalized guidance tailored to your unique situation.

Remember, each step in the legal process is an opportunity for your voice to be heard and your case to be presented. Stay informed, stay calm, and seek good counsel.