When I first started as a lawyer, a Judge once told me that litigating one's differences in court "is the most expensive form of negotiation." He is right. The cost of pursuing a lawsuit or defending against one is big and growing bigger each year.
However, there are times when you must bring a lawsuit or defend against one – when negotiations have broken down and contracts are only partially honored or ignored altogether, you are injured through no fault of your own, or you are falsely accused of wrongdoing.
State and Federal laws have strict time deadlines when a person must file or formally respond to a lawsuit. If those deadlines are not met, either the person filing or answering a lawsuit will lose their right to present or to defend his case.
At the beginning of a lawsuit, a person with a grievance files a Complaint with the court and then serves it on the other party (the defendant) (in some instances, as when suing a government entity, a person is obligated to file a claim with that entity first before filing a Complaint). The defendant then responds usually with an Answer, which denies the allegations in the Complaint and asserts defenses.
After the Complaint and Answer are filed with the court, both sides will gather evidence to bolster their respective cases in a time consuming process called, "discovery." In this "discovery" phase, all sides have the right to subpoena documents and to acquire depositions (i.e. sworn testimony) of the other side and witnesses.
Unless both sides to the lawsuit reach a settlement of their claims, their case will proceed to a trial, the outcome to be decided by either a jury or a judge. The entire process can last months or years, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of individual plaintiffs and defendants involved.
The criminal process does not always start when you are pulled over by a police officer and arrested. Sometimes it begins when you receive a phone call from a government investigator inviting you to informally discuss a situation involving you which "may be to your benefit." What that investigator may or may not tell you then is, anything you say to that investigator from that point on can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Receiving such a phone call is a "jolt" and understandably frightening. At that moment, you do not know what to do as questions materialize - Will I be arrested and put into jail that night? Have I been falsely accused of committing a crime? Should I cooperate? Adding to the uncertainty and fear is you are alone without an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side to advise and protect you.
If you are arrested for the alleged commission of a crime, (other than for a minor offense), you will most likely be handcuffed and taken to jail. After your arrest, an officer will usually read to you your Constitutional rights, which includes your right to remain silent and to be represented by an attorney. You will most times be allowed to post a money bail to gain your freedom pending your next court date. Sometimes, a judge will allow your freedom on your "own recognizance" without posting bail if you qualify.
Your case will proceed and will likely conclude either by a dismissal (for lack of evidence or on a legal technicality), a plea agreement reached by you and the District Attorney, or by a jury verdict reached at the conclusion of your trial.
Before trial, you will be presented with an offer of settlement by the District Attorney called a "plea agreement" or "plea bargain" - in return for your plea of guilty, you will be offered a sentence that may be less than contemplated by law or the court. You are free to accept or reject this offer. If accepted, your case will end and you will start serving your sentence. If rejected, your case moves forward to a trial by jury.