When you’re served with a summons the first time, after the grief and anger subsides, at some point you’ll admit to yourself, “I don’t know what to do.” Don’t panic. Don’t put off dealing with it. By all means, refrain from contacting the plaintiff. From one non-lawyer to another, here’s some straightforward guidance on what to do next.
First, read the complaint closely — take your time! — and get all that cussing out of your system. Work through your emotions as a first step so you can decide with a clear head whether to defend the case or take a default. If you choose to default, accept responsibility for whatever comes next and read no further.
Second, read the summons to find the number of days you have to respond before you’re subject to a default judgment. Add those days to the date you were served and mark your due date on a calendar. Set a one-week reminder to ensure you have enough time to get your response filed with the clerk of court.
From this point on, there are really only three things to do, but you’ll do them continuously:
- Learn the rules of civil procedure and evidence. Litigation flows from an initial complaint to a final judgment, and up through an appeal if necessary. Rules apply to each stage and throughout the case. While some judges go easy on self-represented litigants, ignorance of these rules sets up the roadblocks and speed traps that defeat most first-timers, even when our cases have merit.
- Practice legal research and the art of legal persuasion. When deciding cases, trial judges must follow the relevant opinions of appellate courts or risk having their rulings reversed. You’ll want to find and cite those opinions in your motions and oral arguments to persuade the judge to rule in your favor.
- Stay organized with case management software. You won’t believe how fast the paperwork stacks up, or how easy it is to miss a deadline. You’ll need a way to assemble and manage your documents, collect and organize your research, and stay on task. The lawyer on the other side will use a case management solution, and you should too!
That’s essentially all there is to making a good showing in court. While every case is different, if you learn basic civil procedure, gain some legal analysis skills, and use solid case management, you’ll stay ahead of the panic that often immobilizes other first-time litigants.
So lawyers spend three years of graduate school learning that? Well, not exactly. It’s a wee bit more complicated when you plan on representing others in court. But as a pro se litigant, your efforts should be geared to getting past a judge’s skepticism and capably presenting your arguments in a way he or she can understand. You don’t need to be F. Lee Bailey to do that.
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If you’ve been sued, do you remember your “I don’t know what to do” moment? What other things did you find useful then, or would find useful now? Share your recollections and suggestions in the comments below.