How Long Does a Lawsuit Really Take?

One question I am frequently asked before a lawsuit commences is “How long will this take?” This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many variables. However, I usually try and give a simple timeline, which by no means is written in stone, and depends entirely on everything proceeding in a timely manner (which it rarely does).

Small claims, those lawsuits under $10,000 are slightly more predictable, because there is no “discovery,” where each party attempts to obtain knowledge regarding the lawsuit. Small claims generally have a return date, at which time a party may be defaulted if they don’t come to court. However, if the party comes to court, and the parties cannot agree to resolve the matter at that time, a trial date is generally set. This trial date is generally 2-3 months from the first court date, but does provide for short term resolution of a small claims suit.

Larger lawsuits are generally more complex and are subject to a wider range of problems. However, in a perfect world, a larger lawsuit proceeds in predictable lines. Upon being served, a defendant has 30 days to answer the complaint. Assuming the defendant answers the complaint and does not file any type of motion, which is rare, the case will enter the discovery phase. The first stage of discovery is usually interrogatories and requests for documents. The court will generally set a 60 day deadline to have each side give and respond to these interrogatories and requests for documents. Assuming this runs smoothly, which again, is rare, the court will then grant another 60 days to conduct depositions. Assuming all depositions are taken timely, the court will then set a trial date, which is usually 3-4 months from the time depositions are complete. Looking at these timelines, a large lawsuit, running smoothly from start to finish, will, at best, take pretty close to a year before a trial takes place. Of course, things rarely run smoothly from start to finish, and it is not uncommon for a trial to take place 1 ½ years or 2 years after the lawsuit has been filed.

A lawsuit is not a quick fix – it can take a long time, and a great deal of expense, to get a lawsuit from start to finish. When one of our client’s is forced to file a lawsuit, one thing we routinely do is let the client know how the lawsuit may proceed and what kind of cost is going to be involved. Helping a client understand the rewards and pitfalls of a lawsuit makes the process run more smoothly for everyone involved.

If you have any questions regarding this article, please feel free to contact me at 847-705-7555 or at