3. Prepare your case

Before a case goes to trial, you will have several months to gather your evidence, go to court with the judge to see where things in your case stand (called a case management conference), and try to settle your case. You'll also want to start to prepare for what you'll say and what evidence you'll use at trial if you can’t settle.

How to prepare your case

Preparing can take months. There's a lot to do - going to court dates, gathering evidence, and responding to requests from the other side.

Review the basic steps you'll want to take to prepare

To prepare for your case, you'll need to gather information you can use as evidence to make your case or to figure out what information the other side plans to use to make their case. To do this, you'll use a legal process called discovery.

Use discovery to get the information you need

Discovery allows you to get information and evidence from the other side in your case. You use discovery to find out: 

  • What the other side plans to say about an issue in your case 

  • What facts or witnesses support their side 

  • What facts or witnesses support your side 

  • What information or documents the other side has - that you don't have access to - that could be used as evidence

You can also get information and documents from third parties through discovery. This is through depositions and subpoenas.

Common forms of discovery any side in a case can use are:

  • Requests for Admission
  • Form Interrogatories
  • Demands for production of documents and evidence

If you get these, you need to respond to the request by a deadline. If you do not respond or miss a deadline, you could lose your case or end up owing more money. 


Learn how to request information through discovery

Consider getting help with discovery. 

Discovery often requires knowledge of evidence rules and legal strategies. You can hire a lawyer to help you with just this part of the case. 

The other side may make discovery requests of you

The other side may also conduct discovery to get information from you. If this happens you'll be served with papers describing the information the other side is asking for.

Respond to a request for discovery

Usually, you can have a jury trial (a jury of your peers will decide the case) or a court trial (the judge decides the case). There are some types of civil cases that don’t allow jury trials, like cases asking for an injunction (someone to do or not do something) or declaratory relief (asking the court to decide each side’s rights but without money involved).

If your type of case does allow a jury trial, you’ll have to make a decision. Jury trials can be good if you have a case about things that people can identify with, and if you have a lawyer to present the case. But jurors can get bored or frustrated with cases that are technical or complicated, or when they see a party unprepared. Most judges are very good at understanding complicated problems.

There is a lot of strategy in deciding whether you want a jury or for a judge to decide your case. Talk to a lawyer for advice.

If you ask for a jury trial

You will have to pay a $150 jury fee deposit to cover the jury fees for 1 day. This must be paid prior to the date for your first case management conference. For more information on jury trials and jury fees, see California Code of Civil Procedure sections 631 to 636.

To get a sense of the timing for your trial, the court may check in with you and the other side:

  • About the status of your case
  • Whether you want a jury trial or a court trial
  • To see how close you are to being ready to go to trial

The court uses something called case management conferences (called CMCs) and case management statements to do this. In a case management conference, you discuss plans and status for the case for procedures (like discovery), going to some form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and schedules (when to have a trial). You do not argue your case at the conference.

Each court has its own way of scheduling and organizing case management conferences. Usually, you will have your first CMC 4 to 6 months after a complaint is filed. You may only have one or there may be more if your case takes a long time. Most courts will let you know in writing the date of your CMC.

  • Some courts schedule them when the case is first filed while others schedule them later
  • Some courts only have case management conferences in unlimited (over $25,000) cases
  • Some courts have the conference in person, while others handle the process entirely in writing, and have a meeting only if necessary

It is a good idea to check the court’s website to make sure you know when and where a case management conference will be heard.

Learn how to prepare for your case management conference

Once you start to share evidence, the other side, especially if they have a lawyer, may start to file papers in court asking the judge to make a decision about the case. If the other side wins, it can mean that you lose the case or will have a much harder time at trial (for example if the judge decided you can't use certain evidence).

Go to a law library or get legal help to figure out how to respond in writing. This will require legal research. 

It is common for courts to want both sides to try to work out their case short of having a trial. This is called alternative dispute resolution, which is an alternative to going to trial. If the case does not resolve it typically does not replace going to trial.

Arbitration is a type of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) where a neutral person called an arbitrator hears both sides of a case, looks at the evidence, and makes a decision (called an award). It’s less formal than a trial.

The arbitration can be binding, which means that both sides agree to let it be the final decision and will not go to trial, or non-binding, which means they can still choose to go to trial if they’re not happy with the arbitrator’s decision.

Some civil cases must go to arbitration but it depends on your court and your court’s local rules. California Rules of Court, Rule 3.811. You may also be able to ask for arbitration, even if it’s not mandatory. Or you and the other side may agree (stipulate) to go to arbitration.

Another common form of alternative dispute resolution is mediation. This is a confidential process where both sides and their attorneys, if any, meet with a neutral third party to discuss the situation and possible negotiated outcomes. It is confidential to encourage open communications. You have more control over the possible outcomes in mediation since it is more of a negotiation than arbitration or a trial.

Check your mail so you don't miss deadlines

Over the coming months, the court may send you information about court dates. If you agreed, you may get these in your email. Check your mail and email. 

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 If you move, update your address. Let the court and Plaintiff know your new address

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