Most civil cases never go to court. The estimated number of cases that end in settlements is close to 90%, and it can easily be higher. This might be shocking – to someone who has just walked away from a raw business deal, or a car accident, they want nothing more than to serve some papers and get the law laid down. You might be filled with righteous anger now – you need your day in court – but just wait until you’re in the third year of your case and thirty thousand dollars deep in court fees. Anyone who has actually gone through an extended court battle will quickly attest to how miserable a process it is.

So why do most cases settle before they ever get to court?

Court procedure is slow

The gears of justice grind slowly. We are used to shows like Law and Order (dut dut.), where we see a case come and go in the span of thirty minutes. Law and Order also deals with criminal cases, which usually have a quicker turnaround – we’re talking about civil cases, where businesses, insurance companies, employees, customers, anyone might fight over numbers and the minutiae contained within towering stacks of paperwork. The process is not a swift one.

It might help to understand the barebones of the process; a lawyer starts by drafting a complaint. That complaint needs to be written, reviewed, signed, then filed. That filed complaint needs to be served. Then the person on the other side of the case needs to have a fair opportunity to find legal counsel and respond. More documents are written, reviewed, signed, and then filed. The attorneys might try to speak to each other, they can play phone tag for weeks, and if they need information from their client, that’s another round of phone tag. Then you have court dates, depositions, discovery, these all add months to the process. It can take over a year to get to the point of settling – add another just to prep for a trial. Add another to go through with it. Add another year for appeals, if the opposing party isn’t happy with how that particular trial went down.

Court procedure stressful

This is a common issue in Personal Injury cases – a client will insist that they want to go to trial, but they forget that this includes giving testimony and turning over sensitive data about oneself. The opposing attorney will rise up to carefully pick through every detail of your story and medical history. This occurs a few times throughout the process – during discovery and trial, for examples. This can be difficult enough with just a judge and legal counsel in the room, let alone a jury. Whenever the opposing counsel is questioning you, whether it’s over your medical history, business decisions, or knowledge on certain subjects, it can feel combative and deeply personal. The opposing counsel’s job isn’t to make you feel bad, but it’s a common by-product of the court process.

One of the reasons cases end in settlements is because they’re a more private, quiet alternative to courtroom drama.

Court procedure is expensive

Filing fees. Lawyer fees. Deposition costs.  They add up very quickly. Clients are always quick to say that going into a legal case is about principle, and yet their tune changes when they realize just how prohibitively expensive principle can be. A relatively straightforward case can cost as much as ten thousand dollars, easily.

Say a lawyer gets a call – a potential client’s car has been ruined by a shady mechanic. This potential client wants to take the mechanic to court. But that car that the mechanic busted up is a 2004 Honda Accord. It’s worth $3,000. Of course, it’s worth more than that to the potential client. He already paid it off and put way more money into upkeep. But you can’t argue sentimental value in court. The lawyer has to sit down and explain to a justifiably upset client why their case makes no monetary sense – no matter how angry you are, paying $5,000 to get $3,000 (only after months of work and lots of stress) is not worth it.

Another note on the expenses of a trial: many clients think that, should the court rule in their favor, they will be exempt from legal fees. That is almost never the case. Everyone, absolutely everyone, asks for the court to award attorney’s fees. But in ten years of practicing law, the number of times we’ve seen this happen can be counted on one hand.


Court cases are prohibitively slow, stressful, and expensive. Any lawyer who claims otherwise is lying. A good attorney will be upfront about the difficulties in your case – and should you go forward with your case, it’s most likely going to end in a settlement.

In law, as in life, it’s best to keep to the wisdom of Kenny Rogers: you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

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