Civil Lawsuits: The 8-Step Process From Start to Finish

By: Michael D. Wiese
Woman lawyer explaining process of civil lawsuits to client

All lawsuits begin with a disagreement. If two parties can’t resolve their differences, they hire lawyers to advocate for them. But, many businesses and people are unfamiliar with the process of civil lawsuits. Your only frame of reference may be scenes from television and movies…which aren’t always accurate. For one thing, less than 1% of civil lawsuits in Michigan make it to a jury trial. The vast majority are dismissed or resolved before trial.

What happens behind the scenes? How do lawsuits start and end? In this post, we walk through eight common steps of a civil case. 

Step 1: Pre-suit negotiations

Often, a legal issue is first addressed in the form of a demand letter. This is a way to attempt to resolve differences before going to court. If you hire an attorney to send a demand letter, you’re notifying the opposing party of your legal position, outlining the claims you intend to pursue, and inviting them to resolve the issues prior to filing a lawsuit – saving everyone time and money. If you receive a letter threatening a lawsuit, contact an attorney to assess and assist with the response.

Sometimes, the disagreeing parties will hire a mediator or use their lawyers to help them negotiate and resolve their issues before starting formal litigation. This process is called mediation – it’s confidential and a way to resolve disputes outside the courtroom.

If there’s no resolution, the case enters litigation – the formal proceedings of a lawsuit.


Step 2: File a complaint

The plaintiff’s attorney will file a complaint with the appropriate court. The complaint will indicate:

  • Who is involved in the case
  • Allegations about what happened and who bears responsibility
  • Claims, aka the list of wrongdoings
  • A demand for a judge or jury to decide the case’s outcome

After receiving the complaint, the court will issue a summons. A summons notifies the defendant that they’re being sued and includes the following information:

  • Who is suing you and their attorney’s information
  • Case details including the type of case, judge, and court
  • A copy of the complaint letter

This is the “you’ve been served” moment. There are various methods of delivery – mail, courier, and electronic. Typically, service must occur within 90 days of the summons being issued. Sometimes, parties don’t engage in pre-suit negotiations and start with filing a complaint. If that happens, the summons may come as a shock to you. Don’t panic. Get a lawyer.

Step 3: Respond to the complaint

After receiving a summons, you have limited time to respond. You and your lawyer will review the complaint and respond to its allegations. Then, your lawyer will file your written response, including any counterclaims, with the court.

Step 4: The court issues a schedule for the case

Next, the court will issue a scheduling order which outlines the next steps and corresponding timeline for the lawsuit.


Step 5: Gather information

The discovery stage gives both parties the opportunity to learn everything they can about the case. Lawyers ask questions, obtain documents, talk to relevant sources, etc. They have several tactics for gathering information, including:

  1. Interrogatories – they send a list of questions to the opposition and ask for written responses
  2. Requests to produce – they ask the opposition for relevant documents or physical evidence
  3. Subpoenas – they ask third parties to provide information that may be useful to the case
  4. Depositions – they ask parties and witnesses questions under oath with a stenographer present

Facts gathered during discovery may alter the trajectory of your case. Why? Now that your attorney fully understands your case, they’re better able to advise you on how to proceed, potential outcomes, risks, etc. Courts typically allow six months for discovery, but it may vary from case to case.


Step 6: Prepare for trial

After discovery, lawyers begin preparing for trial. They’ll sort through evidence, argue legal issues to posture the case for trial, design their trial strategy and themes, and more. In addition, your lawyer may file motions asking the court for rulings in the case. For example, your lawyer may ask the judge to exclude or include certain pieces of evidence. Defense lawyers may ask the judge to dismiss the case.

At this point, you may think your case is destined for the courtroom. Not so. Many cases are resolved after discovery and before trial.


Step 7: Trial begins

If your case goes to trial, you’ve beaten the odds! Now, it’s up to a judge or jury to decide who wins by issuing a verdict.

Don’t expect the courtroom drama you see on television and in movies. Trials are meant to be civil and orderly. The judge and attorneys have communicated and confirmed many of the procedural details before opening arguments begin. There are no surprises. Each side is focused on presenting their best, most persuasive argument and winning for their client.


Step 8: File an appeal with the Court of Appeals

If you lose in trial court, you can file an appeal with the Court of Appeals. However, this isn’t a do-over. The Court of Appeals will examine the trial court’s rulings and determine if the trial court made any mistakes that must be addressed.


Civil lawsuits can be uncomfortable and stressful, but knowing the process may provide some relief. One way or another, the case will be resolved. Your best strategy is to hire a lawyer as soon as possible. You deserve to have a professional advocating for you.

Flowchart of civil lawsuit scenarios

This flowchart outlines the four common paths that civil lawsuits can take, from start to finish. In Scenario D, appellate action may occur after resolution. 

Click to enlarge the image.

About the Author

Michael Wiese is an attorney with Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge. For the last 10 years, he has focused his litigation practice on professional liability defense, commercial litigation, and insurance litigation. He earned his Juris Doctorate from Indiana University.