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Understanding and Navigating North Carolina Courts

An experienced lawyer sits down with her client. She listens intently to the client’s telling of how his rights have been violated. The client wants to sue the wrongdoers for every penny they are worth: “Go get them. I hired you to fight. Can we get in front of a judge tomorrow?” The old lawyer calmly replies, “We can fight for your rights. We certainly know how. But there is an inherent cost. The harder we fight; the more time we spend; the higher the legal bills grow.” After a pause, the lawyer tells his client an old adage saying, “We can fight for principle or principal. Your job is to pick the ‘al’ or ‘le’.”

Principle: a moral rule or standard of good behavior or fair dealing (Cambridge Dictionary)

Principal: (of money) denoting an original sum invested or lent (Oxford Languages)

A good lawyer guides their clients through the emotional rollercoaster that litigation represents while constantly refocusing on the economics of the case. For moral reasons – “le” – a client may overrule the math problem that a given case represents and fight deep into the court system. My experience is that this dynamic is rarely black and white. Courts are sometimes inefficient, and clients feel passionately about their cases. Yet, most of the time, clients ultimately settle their disputes for sums certain. Principal – “al” – usually prevails.

Litigation represents parallel tracks: (i) litigating/fighting towards a court hearing or trial; and (ii) pushing for the best settlement figure available to resolve the dispute. As any dispute moves down these tracks, the client ultimately determines how many resources to invest towards any given legal fight—”al” or “le”. A logical risk/reward analysis helps to cut through the drama – “al”. Significant potential damages logically suggest a client invest resources towards litigation expenses. Smaller damages suggest spending less on legal expenses.

The North Carolina court system recognizes this economic structure by generally categorizing civil files according to claimed damages. Higher courts typically require a larger investment of time and resources to present a case. Lower courts often focus on efficiency, which inherently leaves less time to dig deeply into a given legal issue.

North Carolina Small Claims Court (Damages Less Than $10,000): Court designed for non-lawyers to present their small case for a quick decision by a magistrate. Informal legal pleadings. Attorneys are permitted, but certainly not required. Simple appeal of the small claims court decision to District Court is permitted.

North Carolina District Court (Damage Claims Less Than $25,000): Court designed to administer smaller civil disputes. Elected District Court Judge presiding. Mandatory, pre-trial arbitration required with simple appeals authorized. Ultimately, contentious disputes are resolved by judicial hearing or formal trial.

North Carolina Superior Court (Damage Claims Exceeding $25,000): Elected Superior Court Judge. Mandatory, pre-trial mediation. Additional legal complexity expected. Formal. Legal issues often decided by judicial hearing or formal judge/jury trial. Legal briefs often


By: Chad J. Cochran

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