How to File a Lawsuit Without a Lawyer

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 07, 2017
United States Supreme Court

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"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," says a character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, but you don't have to hold to such extreme views to recognize that an attorney is expensive. If you decide to file a lawsuit without a lawyer, do extensive reading and research on your court's self-help website before you prepare your summons and complaint.

Preliminary Considerations

If you talk to an attorney about filling a legal case for you, she helps you determine whether your position is viable, whether you still have time to file your lawsuit and where you should file. If you plan to act without an attorney, this is research you must do yourself. The best place to start is on your court's self-help website, if it has one. Most court websites have a lot of good information that will help you figure out these basic questions. Some courts have staff available that can answer your questions and get you started in the right direction. You can also hire a paralegal to help you.

Understanding the Paperwork

To file a lawsuit, you have to prepare the opening documents. These are called the summons and the complaint or the petition. The court usually provides fill-in-the-blank forms that you can, and sometimes must, use. In the complaint, you name yourself as the person bringing the suit – the plaintiff – and identify the people or entities you are suing, termed the defendants. You also must include facts that give a general description of the circumstances and the types of injuries or damages you suffered. The document called the "summons" tells the defendants how long they have to respond to the complaint by filing their own documents.

Preparing the Documents

A complaint must state a "cause of action" against the defendant. This means that you have to do something more than merely complain about someone's actions. The facts you describe must constitute a legal claim over which you can sue. For example, you may be furious because your upstairs neighbors vacuum at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, but unless this is illegal in your city, you probably can't state a legal cause of action or recover any damages. If you have doubts about whether your issues state causes of actions, it may be wise to run your complaint by an attorney before you file it.

Service and Filing

"Service" in the context of a lawsuit has a particular meaning. It means that you have to deliver the legal documents to the other parties in a manner set out by law. Summons and complaints are usually personally served on the other side when an adult who is not a party to the lawsuit hands the documents to the other party. The person serving the papers signs a "proof of service" document, stating when and how she served the documents. File the summons and complaint with the court either before service or after service, depending on the rules of your jurisdiction.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,,, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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