The Court System Explained

A lawsuit, for many, can be a challenging and confusing process. Not only do you have to figure out the many differences between federal and state laws, but you also have to understand how each of these laws interacts with one another. It can all feel like a daunting task. But it does not have to be.

One of the essential functions that we as lawyers perform is helping our clients break down all the important legal steps involved in a lawsuit while also assisting them through the whole process. This gives our clients a clear understanding of what they are actually getting into and what specific actions they need to take.

Filing a lawsuit is a long, stressful, and expensive process, but knowledgeable legal assistance can make it much more efficient and manageable.

In this blog post, we want to help you better understand what is involved in a lawsuit. We will not only go over the steps required to file a lawsuit, but we will also discuss what you need to know about each stage in the process, and how our legal team can help.

Federal Court vs. State Court

Before proceeding with any lawsuit, many individuals find themselves wondering about the differences between federal and state court and where they will need to file their case. Often, they think that the distinction between the two is extremely complicated. In reality, the difference boils down to which court has the authority to hear your lawsuit. When the framers first created the U.S. Constitution, they wanted to make sure that the federal government had limited power.

They accomplished this goal in part by limiting the kinds of lawsuits that the federal courts can decide. Therefore, most of the laws that affect us today are passed by state and local governments and, as such, state courts usually handle most of the disputes that govern our lives. Below, we describe in more detail which types of issues are heard in state court and which are heard in federal court.

State Court Jurisdiction

State courts are authorized to listen to cases involving the laws and citizens of their specific city or state, including:

  • Cases that deal with legislation passed by the state legislature or local authorities.
  • Criminal offenses that involve an individual who allegedly broke a state or local law.
  • Personal injury lawsuits, family law issues, contract disputes, and traffic violations.

Federal Court Jurisdiction

Federal courts, on the other hand, hear lawsuits between citizens of different states, specific cases involving federal laws, or claims against the United States. These cases can include the following:

  • Violations of the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, or treaties.
  • Bankruptcy issues, patent cases, maritime law cases, or copyright infringements.
  • Criminal cases, where the individual allegedly broke a law contained in the United States Code.
  • Legal disputes between foreign citizens or citizens of different states.

When Should You File a Lawsuit?

Now that you have some idea about whether your case is a state or federal issue, there are still other factors that need consideration before you can proceed with a lawsuit. One of these factors is the statute of limitations.

Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is a law that provides a timeline for filing a lawsuit. Statutes of limitations apply to civil cases (where one person sues another person), and also criminal cases, which prevent prosecutors from charging an individual with a crime they allegedly committed more than a particular number of years ago. The factors that go into determining a specific issue’s statute of limitations make this timeline complicated. Working with an attorney can help you make sure your lawsuit fits within the appropriate allotted time frame.

Your attorney will have to review some specific questions, including:

  • What is the statute of limitations for that state?
  • What is the statute of limitations for that particular type of lawsuit?
  • When did the statute of limitations start running for this particular accident?

How Do You Start a Lawsuit?

When you meet with an attorney for an initial consultation, they will help you determine if you have a feasible claim, and whether you can file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations runs out. They will then proceed with the next steps of the legal process. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. The below summary will explain in detail how the whole lawsuit process works from start to finish.

The Summons

The summons is a written notice by the plaintiff, usually accompanied by a complaint, that notifies the court and the defendant that the complaint was served on the relevant parties. The summons is a very broad description of the allegations in the lawsuit.

The Complaint

The complaint is a document written by the plaintiff’s attorney that is physically served on the defendant. The complaint identifies the lawsuit’s parties, the reason for bringing the suit, and the type of relief that the plaintiff is seeking. Filing the complaint automatically triggers the legal proceedings and timelines for when things must happen next.

The Answer

The answer is the defendant’s response to the complaint. The answer contains the defendant’s version of the incident and what they believe happened. Not only does the defendant have to provide this answer within a specific period of time, but they also need to ensure that they answer each paragraph in the complaint individually with a response to the allegations, for which they must state that they either admit, deny, or “deny sufficient information upon which to form a belief.”

These responses basically mean that the defendant either agrees with an allegation, disagrees with an allegation, or they do not have sufficient knowledge to answer the accusation. Yes, it may be hard to believe, but the defendant will rarely admit to everything in the complaint. Instead, the process will turn into one party making an allegation, and the other side denying it.

The Next Steps in a Lawsuit

Once you get through the preliminary stages of a lawsuit, which commences when you file and serve a summons and a complaint, your attorney will then decide how to argue and provide evidence for the specific issues in the suit in light of the defendant’s answers. To accomplish this, the next step is discovery.


Discovery in a lawsuit is a pre-trial procedure in which each party tries to discover or obtain everything they can about the other side, including all available relevant evidence, statements from anyone involved, as well as requests for production of documents and admissions. The discovery pleadings will consist of the following:

A Request for Production of Documents

A request for the production of documents is a written request served on the opposing party that asks for all of the documents that party has related to the case. These documents can include witness statements, contracts, relevant photos and videos, or any other documentation applicable to the lawsuit. During this process, it is also crucial to understand that a party is not allowed to dispose of any relevant evidence. If this act of spoliation occurs, and the party does anything to harm the evidence, the court will make sure to take corrective measures.

A Request for Admission

A request for admission is a request from one party to another to admit facts that are not in dispute. The evidence each party provides at trial will include only matters that conflict, which will shorten the length of the trial.


The deposition is a meeting of the parties at an agreed-upon place, where each party asks the other questions about the specific event and the basis of the lawsuit. Not only are these statements transcribed or videotaped, but the parties can also take down statements from potential witnesses under oath. These depositions precisely pin down particular testimony and figure out what witnesses are going to say at trial. The court is usually very liberal with the information subject to discovery and will not step in unless the parties are not cooperating. When issues arise, the court will hold a preliminary conference where both parties will discuss the dispute and let the judge decide on how to resolve their specific problems.

Medical Exam

In particular lawsuits, such as personal injury claims, the defendant must hire a doctor to conduct a physical exam of the plaintiff. This independent doctor will examine the plaintiff, write their report, and testify on behalf of the defense.

Once the parties finish the discovery portion of the lawsuit, meaning they know as much as they can about one another and have the evidence they need, setting a trial date is the next step.

Heading to Trial or Settling

Trials can be a stressful time for everyone involved. Not only are they costly, but a lot of prep work goes into the process. In the weeks leading up to the start of the trial, the attorneys for both sides will prepare their witnesses and their clients by going over deposition transcripts and relevant information.

Once the trial begins, the following steps happen in this order:

  • Jury selection, where the attorneys select jury members out of a random pool of potential jurors. This only occurs in a jury trial. In a bench trial, the judge hears the evidence and decides on his or her own without a jury.
  • Opening statements by both parties.
  • The party bringing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, has the burden of proof and goes first presenting their side. When they are finished, the defendant goes next, offering their evidence and witnesses. Following the defendant’s presentation, the plaintiff has one last chance to provide rebuttal evidence.
  • Once the parties finish arguing their case, each attorney will end with closing arguments and explain their interpretation of the evidence to the jury.
  • In a jury trial, the jury deliberates on the case until they reach a verdict.
  • In a bench trial, the judge comes to a decision or judgment.


At any time during these legal proceedings, either party can halt the whole process by voluntarily settling at any point in time. Because litigation is very expensive, these resolution talks are usually beneficial to both sides.

If the parties are having a hard time settling but still do not want to go to trial, they can choose one of the following alternative methods to help them resolve their negotiations:

  • Arbitration: Arbitration is a form of alternative dispute resolution that helps parties work out a case outside of court. An arbitrator will hear the facts of the case from both parties and decide who was at fault and how much the injured party should recover. It is crucial to understand that when the arbitrator decides on the matter it becomes a legally binding agreement, enforceable in the courts on both the parties.
  • Meditation: Another popular method of helping settle a dispute is through meditation. Meditation is a procedure where both parties discuss their issues with the help of an impartial third person. The primary purpose of mediation is to narrow the problems and help the parties come up with a resolution. Unlike arbitration, these meetings do not result in a binding agreement. Rather, they are just a way for both sides to come together with the objective of settling.

Bringing a lawsuit is a complicated process filled with many twists and turns. Not only do parties have to keep track of dates and relevant information, but they also have to make sure they follow the required legal procedures. The most reliable way to ensure that you meet all of the requirements of this strict process is to hire a knowledgeable attorney. And the sooner they begin working on your case, the better chance you have of succeeding in your claim.

Jacoby & Meyers, LLP
Personal Injury Law