Finding yourself suddenly embroiled in civil litigation can feel like you’ve been dropped into a foreign country without a map or dictionary. Unless you happen to be a legal expert, it’s a complex and confusing system to navigate. The stakes often feel frighteningly high as well. Hiring a civil litigation attorney or firm to guide you is absolutely crucial. But even with a lawyer in your corner, there are still plenty of ways clients commonly misstep when working with counsel. Blunders that end up weakening their own case despite having representation.
I’ve worked on hundreds of civil cases over my career – everything from breach of contract disputes to personal injury lawsuits. In that time, I’ve seen clients make certain avoidable mistakes again and again. Costly errors that a little education and forethought could easily prevent.
This article provides an insider look at the most common pitfalls I’ve witnessed clients falling into when partnering with a civil litigation firm. My goal is to help you avoid undermining your own case so that you can achieve the strongest possible outcome. While an attorney’s expertise is invaluable, you as the client also play a key role. Understanding the litigaton process, carefully choosing counsel, communicating honestly, and using your lawyer’s services effectively will pay off tremendously.
Even if you feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the legal system right now, some simple groundwork upfront will prevent regrets down the road. I’ll walk through the various phases of a civil case chronologically, outlining the missteps you’ll want to sidestep at each stage. There are also tips sprinkled throughout on how to foster a smooth and productive working dynamic with your chosen law firm. Equipping yourself with knowledge and insights from an insider perspective will make navigating a civil lawsuit much less daunting.
The very first stumbling block clients encounter is simply not educating themselves on how civil litigation works. It may seem like an overly complex topic to grasp if you have no legal background. But making an effort to understand the basic phases and timeline can prevent tons of confusion.
I always advise new clients to start by learning the key stages of the litigation process. It begins well before you even step foot in a courtroom. Having a handle on the framework helps you know what to anticipate, meet crucial deadlines, and be an informed participant. Major phases include:
– Pleadings – The formal documents filed with the court laying out complaints, defenses, and counterclaims.
– Discovery – The pre-trial phase where each side gathers information and evidence from the other side.
– Motions – Requests made by parties before trial asking the judge to make a decision or ruling.
– Trial – The culminating stage where evidence and arguments are presented to the judge or jury.
– Appeals – The process to contest a trial court’s decision at a higher court.
Understanding court procedures, rules of evidence, and legal terminology will help you know what to expect and be an active participant in building the strongest case possible. Discuss the process thoroughly with your attorney so you understand how your particular case is likely to progress.
Hiring a law firm to handle your civil dispute is a major decision that requires careful due diligence. Rushing into choosing an attorney without thoroughly researching their background, credentials, and track record is unwise.
Take time to evaluate multiple firms before deciding on representation. Look for attorneys who specialize in your specific type of case. Check their education, bar admissions, experience level, win/loss record, and client reviews. Ask trusted contacts for referrals to firms they would recommend.
Vet each prospective firm’s expertise in the type of law relevant to your case. For example, if you have a premises liability case, seek out attorneys skilled in negligence law. If you have a contract dispute, look for those well-versed in business and contract law. Specialized knowledge and skills in the applicable legal area will make a big difference.
Avoid putting your trust in any firm that makes unrealistic claims or guarantees specific outcomes. No ethical attorney will promise a win or make legal assurances before fully examining your case. Find someone who is honest and realistic in their initial consultation.
Failing to understand exactly what you will be charged and how legal fees will be structured is a common misstep. Always ask for clear information about fees and expenses right from the initial consultation. Get fee estimates and agreements in writing.
Law firms generally bill by hourly rates, flat fees per case, or contingency fees taking a percentage of any final award or settlement. Ask how the firm calculates their rates, which staff will be working on your case, and what expenses you may be responsible for. Common costs include filing fees, copying, online research, expert witnesses, transcripts, and more.
If considering a contingency fee, understand clearly the percentage the firm will take if your case succeeds. Contingency fees often range from 25% to 40% of the final settlement or award amount. Clarify what happens if you lose the case or settle for a lower figure.
Fraudulent or excessive legal fees do happen, so know what industry standards are. Get explanations of all charges and do not hesitate to question anything that seems inappropriate. Managing fee expectations upfront prevents misunderstandings down the road.
The attorney-client relationship functions best as an open and honest collaboration. Failing to provide complete, transparent information to your litigation firm severely hurts your credibility and case strength.
Even if certain facts seem embarrassing or potentially damaging, your attorney cannot build the best arguments without knowing every detail of the situation. Being caught in a lie later on seriously undermines your position.
Provide your lawyer with a full, factual account at the very beginning. Supply copies of all relevant documents, even if they seem unimportant. Identify any weaknesses you perceive in your own case.
Your discussions with counsel are also protected under attorney-client privilege, so you can disclose sensitively without fear. Getting everything on the table early allows your firm to construct stronger legal theories and strategies. Partial truths and omitted details can sink your case.
Similarly, failing to turn over documentation or other evidence to your attorney also weakens their ability to defend you effectively. Any information that could influence your legal outcome needs to be shared.
This includes things like:
– Written agreements or contracts
– Emails, social media posts, texts related to the dispute
– Photographs, videos, voice recordings
– Medical or financial records
– Witness names and statements
– Receipts, invoices, purchase records
– Police reports
– Anything requested by your lawyer
Remember that you have an ongoing duty to preserve and provide applicable evidence as your case proceeds. Do not destroy, hide, or withhold anything that could help prove important facts. Even seemingly minor details can become crucial later on. Keep your attorney fully informed.
Once you have hired a civil litigation firm, you must follow their legal guidance and advice. Disregarding your lawyer’s recommendations will hinder your case.
Attorneys have an ethical duty to advocate diligently for you. While you have final authority over certain decisions, defying your counsel’s expert advice often backfires. They have objectivity and expansive experience you lack.
Listen carefully to their guidance on things like:
– Responding to settlement offers
– Agreeing to certain arguments or motions
– Testifying at hearings or trial
– Making public comments about your case
– Providing sensitive testimony or documents
Follow their lead on legal tactics and case strategy. They know how to present the most persuasive arguments to achieve the best resolution. While you may not agree with every recommendation, generally defer to your lawyer’s seasoned judgment.
On the other hand, avoid micromanaging your attorney and constantly second-guessing their work. Finding the right balance as an engaged but respectful client is key.
Legal counsel needs room to operate effectively on your behalf. As long as you have done thorough initial vetting and communicate openly, trust their expertise. Inundating your lawyer with excessive demands or doubts can turn the relationship sour.
Of course, ask questions and request regular case status updates. But allow your firm to handle filings, court appearances, negotiations, and other case work in their own style. As long as they communicate regularly and include you in major decisions, try not to dictate every move.
Mutual trust, along with clear directives from you on goals and desired outcomes, keeps the attorney-client relationship productive.
For your civil litigation team to build the strongest case for you, they need your active participation and collaboration. Failing to respond to your lawyer’s inquiries and requests promptly can stall important case progress.
Make yourself available to discuss case details, prepare documents, and review filings. Respond to emails and calls from your attorneys and staff within a reasonable window. Being uncooperative or constantly delaying vital input will only drag out the legal process.
If your lawyer asks you to complete a task like gathering evidence or answering interrogatories, make it a priority to handle those assignments by the deadlines given. Follow litigation timetables closely so you do not miss important windows to provide input. Your responsiveness allows the legal team to work efficiently.
Maintaining unrealistic expectations about the strength of your case or potential outcomes can also lead to disappointment. While no client wants to consider losing, you must be able to assess your case realistically.
Listen carefully to your lawyer’s objective evaluation of the merits and weaknesses of your position. Based on their experience and expertise, take their advice seriously when discussing likely scenarios. They will craft stronger arguments if not forced to pursue overly optimistic or weak angles.
You can still be positive and hopeful. But stay grounded in pragmatic assessments of how a judge or jury is likely to view the evidence and legal theories in your case. Knowing the realistic possibilities allows for smarter legal strategies and decision making.
Relatedly, completely refusing to entertain settlement options before trial can also be counterproductive. While you may believe strongly in your case, be open to considering potential settlements your lawyer presents.
Settlement allows resolution faster, prevents the risks and public exposure of a trial, and saves substantial time and legal expenses for both sides. Your attorney has a professional duty to communicate any legitimate settlement offers made by the opposing side.
Even if the initial proposals seem inadequate, be willing to negotiate further or make counteroffers. Settlement talks also provide insight into how the other side views the case. With your attorney’s counsel, carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of settling versus continued litigation. Don’t rule out reasonable resolutions just because of emotions.
Finally, allowing anger, hostility or righteousness about your dispute to dominate interactions with your legal team undermines trust. While righteous indignation is understandable, unleashing constant complaints, threats, and criticisms towards your own lawyer is counterproductive.
Express your frustrations and concerns, but avoid irrelevant verbal attacks. Also, do not vent constantly to your attorney about the faults of the opposing party. Stick to conveying legally relevant facts.
Your lawyer is your advocate, not your enemy. Maintain a respectful demeanor and constructive relationship with the team working hard on your behalf. Save venting emotions for private journaling or sessions with a counselor or friend. Clear communication without hostility keeps the legal partnership functional.
Navigating civil litigation comes with many potential pitfalls, even when you have great legal representation. Avoid the common mistakes outlined here of misunderstanding the legal process, failing to properly research and use your law firm’s services, having unrealistic expectations, refusing to negotiate reasonably, and sabotaging the attorney-client relationship with counterproductive behaviors.
Staying an informed, engaged, and collaborative client is vital for reaching the best resolution in your civil dispute. With diligent preparation, open and honest communication, trust in your legal team, and commitment to constructive participation, you will be on the right track to success, no matter the eventual outcome. Managing a civil case well alongside reputable counsel makes an already difficult process much smoother.