Understanding Subpoenas: A Comprehensive Guide to the Process and What to Expect


Receiving a subpoena can be a daunting experience, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the legal system. Whether you're a party to a lawsuit, a witness, or a custodian of records, understanding the basics of subpoenas is crucial. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide to subpoenas, explaining what they are, how they are served, and what you can expect after being served.

What is a Subpoena?

A subpoena is a legal document issued by a court or an administrative agency that commands the recipient to provide specific information, produce documents, or testify as a witness. It is typically used during the discovery phase of a lawsuit, where parties seek relevant evidence to support their claims or defenses. Subpoenas can also be issued in other legal proceedings, such as administrative hearings or grand jury investigations.

Types of Subpoenas:

There are two main types of subpoenas:

  1. Subpoena ad Testificandum: This type of subpoena compels an individual to appear and testify in court or at a deposition. The recipient may be required to answer questions under oath, providing their firsthand knowledge or expert opinion relevant to the case.
  2. Subpoena duces tecum: This type of subpoena requires the recipient to produce specific documents, records, or other tangible items relevant to the case. It may also require the custodian of records to testify regarding the authenticity and relevance of the produced documents.

Serving a Subpoena:

To initiate the subpoena process, the party seeking the information must draft the subpoena and have it issued by the appropriate court or agency. Once issued, the subpoena must be served on the recipient in compliance with the applicable laws and rules of procedure. The serving of a subpoena is usually carried out by a process server or a sheriff's deputy who personally delivers the subpoena to the recipient.

What to Do After Being Served:

Receiving a subpoena can be unnerving, but it's essential to respond appropriately. Here are the steps to take after being served with a subpoena:

  1. Carefully Review the Subpoena: Read the subpoena carefully, noting the date, time, and location of any required appearance, as well as the specific documents or information requested.
  2. Consult with an Attorney: If you have any concerns or questions about the subpoena, it is advisable to seek legal counsel. An attorney can help you understand your rights, obligations, and potential legal defenses.
  3. Determine Legal Privileges or Protections: Some information may be protected by legal privileges, such as attorney-client privilege or doctor-patient privilege. If you believe you have a valid privilege or protection, consult with your attorney to assert those rights properly.
  4. Comply with the Subpoena: Unless you have a valid legal reason not to comply, it is generally necessary to comply with a subpoena. Failure to respond appropriately may result in penalties or even contempt of court.
  5. Gather and Organize Documents: If the subpoena requires you to produce documents, collect the requested materials and organize them for review and production. Seek guidance from your attorney regarding any concerns about the scope or relevance of the requested documents.
  6. Prepare for Testimony: If you've been called to testify, work with your attorney to prepare for your appearance. Familiarize yourself with the facts of the case and review any relevant documents or communications that may be referenced during your testimony.
  7. Attend Court or Deposition: On the designated date, appear at the specified location as required by the subpoena. Be punctual and dress appropriately for court or deposition proceedings. Cooperate with the attorneys involved, answer questions truthfully, and follow the instructions provided by the presiding officer.


Receiving a subpoena can be a significant event, but understanding the process and knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it. By carefully reviewing the subpoena, seeking legal counsel when necessary, and complying with the requirements, you can navigate the subpoena process more effectively. Remember, an attorney with expertise in the relevant legal area can provide invaluable guidance and representation throughout this complex process.