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Litigation is the process of resolving disputes by filing or answering a complaint through the public court system.  

In federal courts, litigation is governed by a number of federal rules: the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, and the Federal Rules of Evidence.  These are supplemented by the local rules of each court and the standing orders of judges.

Major Steps in a Civil Case

  • Plaintiff commences civil action by filing a complaint with the clerk of the court.
  • Personal jurisdiction is obtained over the defendant (e.g. by means of service of process).
  • The parties meet and confer with one another in order to identify issues, discuss the possibility of settlement, and prepare a plan for discovery and disclosure.
  • The court conducts an early pretrial conference (scheduling conference) or else issues a pretrial scheduling order.
  • Defendant may file motions.
    • Some motions must be filed in the first responsive pleading of the defendant. 
    • Other motions may be filed later.
  • Defendant files an answer.
  • Parties disclose documents and the discovery process moves forward.
  • Either party may file any additional motions.
  • The court holds the final pre-trial conference.
  • The court conducts trial.
  • The court renders, signs, and files the judgment.
  • Post-trial proceedings may or may not occur.
  • Appeal may be taken.
  • Appeal is considered based on either briefs or after oral argument.
  • Judgment is rendered on the appeal.
  • Supplementary proceedings may or may not occur.
  • Judgment is enforced.

Further Reading

For more on litigation, see this University of Minnesota law Review article and this Stanford Law Review article.

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team