Written by attorney Jack J. Adams


It's been a long day. You're at home trying to relax when the door bell rings. Upon opening the door, a stranger hands you a packet of papers. The word "SUMMONS" jumps off the top page as the stranger’s voice declares “You’ve been served."

This same process of being served a summons could happen on the job (which is a lot more embarrassing). Keep in mind that you do not have to be personally served but the lawsuit can be left at your home. Regardless of how you receive the lawsuit you must take action.

You are being sued! Sometimes it is expected, sometimes not, but it always leaves people with a sinking feeling when it happens. What do you do? One thing is certain - You must respond! Of all the things you can do, the absolute worst response is no response. Do not ignore the summons. If you do not respond the person suing you will get whatever they have asked for in their lawsuit because the Court will only hear his or her story. This is generally called a judgment by default.

The first step is to read the paper that you were served with. Depending on the type of lawsuit, the summons will either tell you a court date to appear or tell you that you must respond within a certain time. Again, failure to do either will result in a default judgment being taken against you.

The second step is to either appear in court at the scheduled court date or if there is no court date, respond to the summons before the deadline. Before you do either, and well in advance of your court date or response date, you should seriously consider hiring an attorney to represent you. You may also want to consult with a bankruptcy attorney and look at the possibilities of just eliminating the law suit without further court appearances.

The legal process can be both intimidating and complicated to someone unfamiliar with the legal system.. A perfect example is the legal response, called an "answer," which must be filed after being served with a summons. Various rules determine the proper way to "answer" the papers with which you were served. The answer is not simply your version of what has happened. Additionally, filing an answer submits you to the jurisdiction of the court and you may lose valuable defenses by doing so. Should you decide to represent yourself (although not recommended), check the local law library for reference books about the legal process and the type of lawsuit for which you are being sued. Do not be surprised if it all seems like “legal mumbo jumbo." It takes seven years of college to become a lawyer and figure out the “mumbo jumbo."

It is possible to negotiate a settlement with the company that served you. This can be tricky. You might be waiving defenses you have to the suit or just over paying. You must use extreme caution in negotiating a settlement and read each word of a settlement proposal. Additionally, once you have read the agreement you must understand the meaning of the language used. This can be a true mine field.

If you have made it this far without an attorney and not negotiated a settlement you will need to prepare for trial! You must expect and anticipate that the matter will proceed to hearing. It is never too early to start preparing for the trial. Should you hire an attorney, they can prepare motions, investigate, and raise defenses to help represent your interests. If you are representing yourself, you will need knowledge of the facts as well as the process to be effective at the hearing. Additionally you will need to prepare various pretrial motions, take depositions (recorded statements under oath), prepare subpoenas for all your witnesses, have your witnesses served by a process server, and develop the theme of your case. You will have to be very familiar with the rules of evidence as they apply to you bearing in mind that the judge will not cut you any slack, with the exception of small claims where the rules of evidence do not apply.

In a nutshell, as soon as you are served seek legal counsel. Do this well in advance of your court date to avoid problems. If you estimate the massive hours it would take to actually do a good job at representing yourself, hiring legal counsel to represent you or to file bankruptcy is a bargain.

Additional resources provided by the author

Free Q&A with lawyers in your area

Can’t find what you’re looking for?

Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer