While every civil case is different, the steps involved in preparing a plaintiff’s case for filing are similar from one case to the next. This quick guide covers everything that happens from client engagement to serving a civil complaint on the opposition.
Step 1 – Check for conflicts
The first thing a law office must do when it takes on a new client is to perform a conflicts check to make sure that no one else in the office is handling a legal matter adverse to the new client. Conflict-checking software makes this step fast and easy to complete.
Step 2 – Write the fee agreement
Next, the lawyer and client should sign an agreement that explains how much the lawyer will be paid and how the client will pay. The agreement should clarify what expenses the law firm will pass on to the client and what expenses the law firm will absorb as overhead. A discussion of expenses is especially important in a contingent fee agreement, where the lawyer gets no fees unless and until the client wins and collects money. Litigation expenses add up fast, and the client may be surprised when his “free” lawsuit costs him thousands of dollars.
Step 3 – Verify the story
During the initial meeting, the client tells the lawyer his story and provides any documentation he has collected to support his claim. It is not enough for the lawyer to listen to the client’s tale of woe and rush to the courthouse to file an action. A lawyer must conduct a reasonably thorough investigation into any matter that she asserts before a court to verify that the claim is not a frivolous one.
Step 4 – Identify the parties
A reasonably thorough investigation will also reveal every individual and organization that might be involved in the client’s situation. Each entity involved must be analyzed and identified as witnesses, individuals involved in similar circumstances, or parties that should be held responsible for the client’s damages. Identifying defendants may mean tracing a corporation’s various branches for the right defendant or adding “John Doe” defendants to represent individuals yet to be identified.
If the investigation shows that others suffered the same legal harm that your client suffered, and at the hands of the same defendant, consider filing a class action against the defendant.
Step 5 – Attempt resolution
Civil lawsuits are expensive, and the best time to resolve a dispute may be before a case is actually filed. In most cases, the defendant has something to gain by the plaintiff not “going public” with a lawsuit. Consider reaching out to the defendant with a letter offering him, her or, in the case of a corporation, it, the chance to resolve the dispute at this early stage. Some attorneys include a copy of an unfiled civil complaint with the letter, to let the defendant know how very seriously the plaintiff takes the matter.
Step 6 – Follow the rules
Local court rules in each jurisdiction govern the process of filing the complaint, serving process on the defendants, and moving the case through the court system. Civil litigation attorneys must comply with their local rules and stay up to date on changes in the rules.
No two cases are the same, yet some basic steps should be followed before taking on a plaintiff’s civil case. This quick guide is meant to be just that – not legal advice. Nothing herein should be interpreted as legal advice. Readers are encouraged to consult their attorney if they have questions about this subject.