The legal system can be confusing and complex as it has many complicated laws, rules, and procedures. As you look for an attorney to take your case you may wonder how the legal process works. At what point does a lawsuit start? Is it once you retain your attorney? Or are there additional steps that must be taken?
What Is An Attorney?
An attorney is person who is "authorized to practice law." Attorneys have graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and been admitted to practice law in one or several states. Typically an attorney will choose an area of law that they like or find interesting, and focus their practice on that area. For example, at Gilman & Bedigian, our areas of expertise are personal injury law and medical malpractice law. Both of these areas are considered part of the civil side of law which includes other legal areas such as: labor and employment, real estate, business, intellectual property, and contracts. Other attorneys focus on criminal law, either working as a prosecutor or a defense attorney. Still others work for government agencies such as the attorney general's office or the patent office. Some attorneys become in-house counsel for large corporations or universities. Some attorneys work with non-profit organizations or return to law school as professors.
When most people think of an attorney, they think of a person standing up in a courtroom arguing on behalf of his or her client. And this isn't an inaccurate picture - an attorney's job is essentially to advise their clients on legal matters and represent their clients in a court of law. But attorneys also do many other things besides litigation, especially in a corporate or educational setting. For example, a corporate attorney may have a more advisory role, informing his or her client of the legal implications of a business deal or merger the company is trying to complete. A law professor won't have any clients but will instead be teaching the next generation of lawyers.
Hiring an Attorney for a Maryland Personal Injury Claim
If you have been injured and are seeking to file a personal injury claim, the first step you will take is to hire an attorney. Generally, a potential client will first meet with a lawyer and discuss the specifics related to the case. This is known as an initial consultation. The lawyer will then dispense advise as to whether a potential claim is likely to be viable. If the attorney believes that a claim would be viable, and the client wishes to engage the services of an attorney, the two parties will come to an agreement as to how the attorney shall be paid and the responsibilities of both parties as the claim moves forward. It is important to note that while hiring an attorney is usually the first step a plaintiff can take in pursuing a personal injury claim, hiring an attorney is not the same as filing a lawsuit. Filing the claim should be one of the first initial steps your attorney will take.
What Is A Lawsuit?
One of the common things an attorney does is file a lawsuit on behalf of his or her client. A lawsuit is "[a] legal action by one person or entity against another person or entity, to be decided in a court of law." Lawsuits are started when the plaintiff files a complaint in the appropriate court. A complaint is "the initial pleading that starts a civil action and states the basis for the court's jurisdiction, the basis for the plaintiff's claim, and the demand for relief." Black's Law Dictionary 323 (9th ed. 2009).
An Overview Of A Lawsuit
Most lawsuits follow the same general format. This section will give a brief overview of how a typical lawsuit may proceed. After a complaint is filed in court, the defendant must respond. The defendant has two choices in responding, he or she can file an Answer. An Answer is a document that addresses all the contentions in the complaint and presents any counterclaims or applicable defenses. Instead of filing an answer, a defendant may file a motion to dismiss. A motion to dismiss is a "formal request for a court to dismiss a case." The grounds to dismiss can vary but there are certain defenses that must be raised at the outset of litigation, such as lack of personal jurisdiction, or they will be deemed waived and a defendant cannot raise them again.
Provided the court doesn't dismiss the case, the next phase of a lawsuit is discovery. Discovery is the process by which each side builds its case by finding evidence (documents and witnesses) to support its position. This is done through discovery devices like interrogatories, requests for production, requests for admission, and depositions. Once discovery is closed, the case proceeds to trial.
Trial begins with each side making an opening argument to the jury. The opening argument typically outlines what evidence each side plans to present in support of their case. Once opening arguments are done, the plaintiff's presents all the evidence they have gathered by submitting exhibits and interviewing witnesses. After the plaintiff rests, the defense presents its evidence. Once the defense is finished, the plaintiff can rebut some of the evidence put on by the defense, and the defense can do the same. This continues until both sides rest. Then closing arguments begin. The closing argument is each party's final chance to persuade the jury that the evidence the jury has seen supports one point of view or the other. The plaintiff will argue the evidence points in his or her favor and the defendant will argue the evidence supports his or her side. After closing arguments, the jury is read instructions by the judge on the applicable law in the case. The jury retires and begins deliberations. Once a verdict has been reached, the jury returns. The verdict is then read to the court and a judgment is entered in favor of either the plaintiff of defense.