Going to Court: Surviving the Courtroom

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The best way for a nonlawyer to survive the courtroom is to avoid it altogether by settling your dispute (see Nolo's article Try to Compromise Before You Sue) or by using mediation instead. Failing this, you'll either need to hire a lawyer or learn how to navigate a formal court proceeding. If your dispute isn't over enough money to justify paying a lawyer, doing it yourself may be your only realistic approach. As with learning any other bureaucratic process, learning to represent yourself will take some effort, but it's not impossible.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you decide that you don't have the time or inclination to represent yourself and you want to hire a lawyer to handle your case, there are several ways you can minimize your stress and maximize your chances of success. First, find a skilled lawyer with whom you can work comfortably at an affordable cost. (For help, see Nolo's article How to Find an Excellent Lawyer.)

Next, find out what to expect during the course of your lawsuit -- and how you can work with your lawyer to achieve the best possible outcome. Ask your lawyer to keep you apprised of developments in your case and tell you what role you can play in each stage of the proceedings. To this end, you can consult a self-help resource: The Lawsuit Survival Guide, by attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo), for detailed information about what goes on in a civil lawsuit.

Finally, work with your lawyer to take advantage of pretrial opportunities to settle your case by approaching settlement talks, mediation, and negotiations with an open mind. Remember, the vast majority of civil lawsuits never go to trial. Even though you've hired a lawyer and entered the litigation arena, you can still leave court quickly behind if you make good faith efforts to resolve your dispute.

Representing Yourself in Court

The basics of how to bring or defend a case aren't difficult, although trying to get on top of every detail, nuance of procedure, and strategy is. For example, before you even go to court, you may have to participate in a deposition or ask or answer written questions (interrogatories). In addition, when your trial begins, you will obviously need to know where in the courtroom to sit and stand and, more importantly, what to say and how to say it. You will also need to call your own witnesses or cross examine those of your opponents, which you'll have to learn to do efficiently and effectively.

For those who want to represent themselves, Nolo suggests a two-pronged approach: First, consult two books, Nolo's Deposition Handbook, by attorneys Paul Bergman and Albert Moore, and Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by attorneys Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo), to learn how to handle routine legal tasks yourself.

Second, hire a lawyer in the limited role of self-help law coach, to provide advice as needed on strategy and tactics. (For guidance, see Nolo's article Hiring a Lawyer as Coach.) In many situations, hiring a lawyer to coach your self-help efforts will cost only about 10% to 20% of what it would cost to hire the lawyer to go to trial for you. Your legal coach may simplify your legal research, suggest evidence you should look for to prove your legal claims, explain rules of evidence, inform you of deadlines, alert you to courtroom procedures peculiar to your local court system, or suggest ways of making your arguments more persuasive.

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