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Do I Need a Litigation Attorney in Minnesota? - FAQs

1.  Do I Need a Litigation Attorney in Minnesota?

Yes, in some situations you must have an attorney in Minnesota district courts. In other situations, it is not required but will be helpful. The answer depends on if you are a business entity or individual.

Business Entities

In Minnesota district court, business entities must have a licensed attorney represent them. See 301 Clifton Place L.L.C. v. 301 Clifton Place Condo. Ass'n, 783 N.W.2d 551 (Minn. Ct. App. 2010); Nicollet Restoration, Inc. v. Turnham, 486 N.W.2d 753 (Minn. 1992). This includes corporations, LLCs, and certain partnerships. If you sign court documents on behalf of your entity, they will likely be invalid and you may lose your case. There are limited exceptions for entities to appear in evictions and small claims court. Otherwise, a business entity will need to hire an attorney to appear in district court and sign court documents.

Individuals

If you are personally named as a defendant, you can generally represent yourself individually in district court. But the risk is that your mistakes could cost you the case. The judge will expect you to know the rules and follow the rules. If you miss an important deadline or fail to properly serve notice to other parties, you could lose the case. Note that while you can appear for yourself in district court, you will not be given a hearing in an appeals court. See Rule 134.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Appellate Procedure. In an appeals court, you will have to rely on your written brief.

Unauthorized Practice of Law

It is illegal in Minnesota for a non-lawyer to give legal advice and act as someone else's attorney. This is called “unauthorized practice of law” under Minn. Stat. § 481.02, and it is a criminal offense. Be careful.

The bottom line: regardless of whether you must have a lawyer for district court, a litigation attorney will bring value to your case, take you though the court process, and reduce your stress.

2.  What Can a Civil Litigation Attorney Do for Me in Minnesota?

A civil litigator is an attorney that focuses on civil disputes and lawsuits (rather than family, criminal, or transactional matters). They frequently appear in court, and are often known by judges and other litigators. Their caseload is mostly disputes and lawsuits. A transactional attorney writes contracts, deeds, wills, and agreements. A litigation attorney resolves disputes about those transactions.

A civil litigation attorney will help:

  • Take you through the court process
  • Understand your legal rights
  • Protect your legal rights, reputation, and assets
  • Reduce your stress
  • Free up your time
  • Limit your risks
  • Avoid legal mistakes
  • Preserve your direct relationships
  • Save you money in the long-term
  • Offer strategic guidance
  • Maximize value in your case

Civil litigation attorneys often do the following work:

  • Investigate claims
  • Research cases and statutes
  • Review documents
  • Coordinate witnesses
  • Take depositions
  • Argue with the opposing attorney
  • Negotiate settlements
  • Draft pleadings, motions, affidavits, settlement documents, and other court documents
  • Appear in court or mediation
  • Communicate with you frequently

Here's a hint: not every attorney is a litigator or good at litigation. Litigation is challenging work. Many attorneys choose practices that involve less stress, conflict, and rigor. Transactional attorneys often refer problematic transactions to a litigation attorney, who is in better position to handle the dispute. An attorney that focuses on litigation has had more "reps" with lawsuits and court appearances, and "reps" lead to efficiencies for you.

When to Hire a Litigation Attorney

Generally, it is best to contact an attorney early in the dispute while you can still shape the case strategy.  And, if the other party has not yet hired an attorney, you may gain an advantage.

Our firm is often hired before a formal lawsuit is filed. The types of disputes we handle (business, real estate, banking-lending, construction) often are settled before a formal lawsuit. Businesses are often willing and able to resolve cases without significant investment in attorneys. However, people hire litigation attorneys at various times during a case. Litigation attorneys are generally happy to step in as needed, but it is best to give them some lead time before a hearing or a motion deadline.

3.  What Things Can I Do Without a Litigation Attorney in Minnesota?

Business Entity

A business entity (corporation, LLC, certain partnerships) cannot represent itself in Minnesota district courts or sign court documents, but it can do other things. A business entity can negotiate with other parties, can sign settlement agreements, can organize documents for the case, and can do many other things outside of court.

Individual

A self-represented individual can generally represent himself or herself individually in court. This includes drafting and signing court-related documents.

Consequences of Mistakes

Even if you can take some legal actions without an attorney, you generally shouldn't do it. Legal mistakes in disputes and lawsuits are costly, and you may lose your case. You should consider an attorney before a lawsuit occurs, but it's even more crucial after a lawsuit begins.

People commonly make mistakes when they draft their own Complaint, draft an Answer, or try to serve these pleadings on the other party. Your initial pleading sets the course of your case and it is crucial you do it right. If you don't allege the right facts, for the right claims or defenses, against the right parties, at the right time, in the right court, and serve it correctly, YOU MAY LOSE YOUR CASE.

Look for a litigation attorney that offers a free consultation. We offer free consultations by phone and people take advantage of it. Prospective clients are often able to get their bearings and understand the issues better, even if they do not hire an attorney. Having a conversation with an attorney can give you a strong indication if he or she is someone you will be able to work with for the duration of your case.

4.  Will I Save Money by Representing Myself in District Court?

Yes, on a temporary basis. If you have legal training, are allowed by law to represent yourself, and do it properly, you will save money. But if you make mistakes, it will be costly in the long run.

Problems with Doing Your Own Pleadings

A legal mistake in a dispute is costly and you may lose the case. You may also make the problem worse. For example, if you write your own Answer to a lawsuit yourself, you might not:

  • preserve all available defenses and affirmative defenses;
  • properly deny allegations or accidentally make admissions that sink your case;
  • answer within the deadline;
  • include all counterclaims, cross-claims, or third-party claims;
  • properly move for dismissal of the complaint; or
  • properly have an attorney sign for a corporation, LLC, partnership, which makes the pleading invalid.

By doing your own Answer, you might save $200-$1,000 or so on attorney's fees depending on the complexity of your case. But to fix mistakes, you might spend $2,000-$5,000+. This could include $200-$1,000 for the attorney to rewrite the answer, $1,000-$3,000 to draft motions and paperwork to amend the pleading, and perhaps another $500-$1,000 for filing fees and attorney time in court. If the judge allows the change, you're in luck but you had to pay extra money to get it done right.

The judge might not allow you and your attorney to change the pleading. Then what? For example, say you have a breach of contract case where the plaintiff seeks $20,000 from you, and you accidentally admitted an allegation in the Complaint (“Defendant failed to pay Plaintiff $20,000 according to the Contract.”). You might have lost the case right there and owe the other side $20,000, plus their court costs.

There are similar concerns if you write your own Complaint to start a lawsuit. Again, you must allege proper facts, for the proper claims, against the right parties, within statutes of limitations, in the right court, and serve it correctly. If not, YOU MAY LOSE YOUR CASE.

Avoid Losing Cases

Sadly, too many cases are lost when people try to represent themselves or their company. The lesson is to be very careful and make sure you know what you're doing. Consider speaking with an attorney before taking action. A free consultation may be useful and, if you decide not to hire the attorney, you are no worse off. The free consult may even give you a few hints about issues to watch out for in your case. Listen carefully to the attorney's questions and the issues that the attorney focuses on.

If you do hire an attorney for a civil dispute or lawsuit, there will be attorney's fees. You should consider the value an attorney could bring compared to the cost. Often, it's a no-brainer, as business entities must have an attorney in district court. Consider hiring an attorney that is trustworthy, competent in litigation, charges reasonable rates, communicates well, and can work efficiently. Each of these things may minimize your investment in the case and maximize your chance of a favorable outcome.

5.  How do I know what law applies (and where to find it)?

This can be a complicated question, even for an attorney. Basically, your civil dispute could involve laws such as the US Constitution, federal laws, federal regulations and guidance, a state constitution, state laws, state regulations, and ordinances from a county, city, or township. Any contract or agreement you have is also a key source of authority.

Statutory Law

  • Federal law is considered “supreme” over state laws, according to the US Constitution. This means that a state or local government generally cannot have laws that conflict with federal laws. If so, federal law prevails. Local laws are generally ok if consistent with federal laws. The important thing to remember is that federal laws and regulations apply to people in every state. Many federal laws can be found here.
  • Minnesota statutes apply to people in Minnesota, but also to contracts that elect to be governed by Minnesota law. Here is the Revisor's website with electronic versions of present and past statutes, and other rules. 
  • County, city, and township laws apply to local areas. The geographic area depends on the boundaries of your county, city, or township. Sometimes, these small government units have their ordinances, codes, and rules on their websites. Other times, you must go into their local offices, or the courthouse law library, to review them. Ordinances and local rules do not cover all issues, but they do govern zoning, land use, and other local issues. Here is an example of ordinances from Scott County, Minnesota, where I practice. 

Case Law

Case law from appeal courts are another source of legal authority. US Supreme Court decisions can generally be found here. You can find various federal cases on Google Scholar here. Various “Federal Circuit Courts” have websites with recent decisions. Minnesota is in the Eighth Federal Circuit, and has federal courthouses in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and Fergus Falls.  

In Minnesota, many appeals decisions can be found at the Minnesota State Library website. Google Scholar may be another free source of Minnesota case law. If you go to a local courthouse, there may be a “MNCIS” computer that could allow you to access appeals and district court decisions. Your county may have legal books and materials at a courthouse law library, or even a public library.

 Contracts

Additionally, your contract, agreement, or loan is a source of authority. It might add or modify procedures, and may tell you what jurisdiction's laws apply to the contract. It should also describe your rights and the rights of the other party to the contract. In fact, these provisions may be a starting point of your research and may resolve your issue. Don't overlook them.

Overall, laws are complex. Don't underestimate the time it may take you to find the right laws, and the challenge of applying those laws to your case. Mistakes can be costly to your case. Consider speaking with an attorney about the issue, especially one that offers a free consultation.

6.  How Do I Write Court Documents Myself?

First, check to see that the law allows you or your business to appear in district court. If not, you may render the document invalid.

Make sure your writing is clear, concise, and organized. Make a "request for relief" and the reasons supporting your request. The Minnesota Courts website has a library of forms. This is a good way to understand the format of documents that are filed in court and language used. You should be careful to make sure the forms apply to your case. They are often general templates and may not apply to your situation.

These Minnesota Court documents should give you a sense of how to properly cite statutes, rules, and case law. If you are relying on legal authority for your argument, you should describe it in your written filing rather than simply mentioning it at the hearing. This may help ensure that you make a “record” of your written arguments if there is an appeal. It is also helpful for the court to understand your argument before the hearing by reading your written documents.

Once you have finished writing, don't forget to provide it to other attorneys or self-represented parties in the case. The judge might not consider it unless you show that you have provided the document to the other parties. Private (“ex parte”) communications to the judge are generally not allowed in the case.  

Again, it is risky to represent yourself in court. At a minimum, contact an attorney to see what they can offer

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