What Is General Litigation?

Attorneys working in general litigation can help in resolving a variety of legal disputes

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 6, 2023

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If you have a dispute with someone, you might try to work it out between the two of you. Maybe you’ll call to negotiate a settlement or attend mediation at the courthouse. But when you can’t solve a disagreement yourself, you’ll need to ask a judge to decide a case. And that means you are prepared for litigation.

General Litigation – What You Need To Know

  • Litigation is the process for resolving a legal dispute between parties through a lawsuit.
  • You can use litigation to solve all kinds of disputes, such as contract or warranty disputes, property disputes, car accidents and many others
  • A lawyer who practices general litigation can likely help you with most types of civil cases.
  • Each lawsuit is different, but generally litigation follows the path laid out below.

General Litigation Overview

What Is Litigation?

Litigation is the process for resolving a dispute through a lawsuit. There are many terms you need to know to better understand litigation:

  • Demand letter. You can try to resolve a dispute yourself by sending a demand for compensation to the party that harmed you. If they agree, you can both sign a settlement agreement. If you can’t, you probably need to litigate a claim.
  • Complaint or petition. You file this legal pleading with the court, which kicks off the litigation process.
  • Plaintiff. This person files the complaint in court. They usually are seeking monetary compensation for the harm they suffered.
  • Defendant. This is the person who is sued. If they are found liable, they will need to pay compensation to the plaintiff.
  • Answer. After receiving the complaint, the defendant files the answer in court in which they give their side of the story.
  • Remedies. This is what you ask the court to give you if you win. In most litigation, the remedy is compensation in the form of money damages.
  • Injunction. Rarely, the plaintiff wants the defendant to stop doing something, so they can also seek an injunction from the judge. A restraining order is a type of injunction. A plaintiff might ask for an injunction in the place of compensation or in addition to money damages.

What Disagreements Can You Solve With Litigation?

You can use general civil litigation to solve all kinds of disputes, such as:

  • Contract or warranty disputes
  • Real estate disputes
  • Car accidents and other personal injury cases
  • Products liability cases
  • Employment law and workers’ compensation disputes
  • Disputes with insurance companies
  • Business disputes
  • Medical malpractice

Some lawyers focus on one or more of the above practice areas. But a lawyer who practices general litigation can probably help you with any type of litigation dispute.

Small Claims Court

Some litigation ends up in small claims court, which each state has created to resolve disputes which are not worth a small amount of money. Each state sets the maximum dollar amount you can seek and still use small claims court. In Delaware, for example, you can go to the Justice of the Peace Court if you have a contract dispute under $25,000. By contrast, Kentucky limits small claims court to disputes under $2,500.

The Stages of Litigation

Each lawsuit is different, but most cases have the following stages:

  • The plaintiff files a complaint and serves a copy on the defendant, along with a summons.
  • The defendant files an answer and serves a copy on the plaintiff.
  • Initial court appearance before a judge.
  • The defendant files a motion to dismiss. Essentially, the defendant claims the complaint doesn’t make out a legal claim for relief, so they think the judge should dismiss the case.
  • The judge sets a discovery schedule.
  • After discovery, either side can file a motion for summary judgment, which argues no meaningful issues are in dispute and the judge can decide who wins based on the law.
  • The parties go to trial to present their case before a judge or jury.

If you are in small claims court, then you might not go through all the steps above. Most small claims courts compress discovery and dispense with any motions, like a motion to dismiss or summary judgment. This speeds up the process and helps resolve a dispute much faster.


Discovery is a critical part of litigation. This is your chance to get helpful information from the other side which will strengthen your case. For example, as a defendant, you might not really understand the full extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, so you can use discovery to uncover this information.

There are many discovery techniques:

  • Document production. You can ask the other side to turn over copies of documents related to the dispute or allow you to inspect an item. For example, if you were in a car accident, you might want to inspect the other driver’s car to check for a defect. Or you could request a copy of the other side’s insurance contracts.
  • Requests for admission. You can ask the other side to admit to certain facts to narrow down the issues in dispute. For example, you might want the other side to admit a car accident happened on a certain day.
  • Interrogatories. These are questions that you want the other side to answer under oath. Most states limit the number you can ask, but they help uncover certain information. For example, you might want the name and contact information for all doctors the plaintiff has seen following a car wreck.
  • Deposition. In a deposition, you answer questions under oath with a court reporter present (or with the deposition videotaped).

Remember, both sides participate in discovery. Just as you can serve document requests or interrogatories on the other side, they can also send them to you. You must turn over all requested information or documents unless the request is too broad or burdensome.

When you want documents from a third party, your attorney can send a subpoena. As an example, you might want bank records or cell phone records.

What Is a Good Litigation Outcome?

A “good” outcome depends on whether you are the plaintiff or defendant. Both sides want to win, but what does “winning” mean?

The plaintiff probably wants compensation for what they lost. For example, if you paid $6,000 for a defective car (a “lemon”), then you probably want your money back. If you suffered bodily injuries in an accident, then you probably want compensation for medical bills, lost income, damage to your property, and pain and suffering.

A defendant wants to pay nothing. They can usually accomplish this by showing the law and facts are in their favor, or that the defendant’s injuries or losses are trivial.

Each side should also consider if they want to maintain a relationship going forward. This can impact your litigation strategy. For example, two businesses suing each other might want to continue doing business in the future. Or if you sue your neighbor over a boundary dispute, you might want to keep decent relations since you will continue to live side by side. A general litigation attorney can help you think through possible ways to settle a dispute so that each side feels like they have won.

How a General Litigation Attorney Benefits You

Litigation is complicated. It can also drag on for years if you are not careful and become very expensive. You might be tempted to settle just to stop the litigation so you can get on with your life. This is particularly tempting if you run a business, because business litigation can seriously hurt your bottom line.

A general litigation attorney can help develop a strategy. You want to understand precisely what you hope to achieve in the litigation and what evidence is necessary.

A good litigation attorney should keep an eye on costs. Consequently, they might object to certain discovery requests as too burdensome. For example, a request to “turn over all emails since 2000” is really a fishing expedition and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Your lawyer should ask the judge to narrow down overly broad discovery requests.

Your litigation lawyer should be a good negotiator. Many lawsuits settle, even after the plaintiff files a complaint. In fact, a lawsuit can settle at any time, even after a jury verdict.

Common Questions To Ask an Attorney

If you meet with a lawyer for a consultation, get answers to the most pressing questions you have:

  • Have you handled lawsuits like mine before?
  • How much trial experience do you have?
  • How much do you charge?
  • Should I settle or opt for a jury trial? What are the odds I win my lawsuit?
  • Should I try to settle my case by using an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method such as arbitration?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of law firm—somewhere that can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

A solid attorney-client relationship can make all the difference in litigation matters. To help you get started in your search for legal advice, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices general litigation.

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