Most employees work “at will,” which means an employer can fire them for any reason. In fact, an employer doesn't even have to give a reason for firing an at-will employee.
If your employer just tells you to gather your things and go, does it even make sense to consider your legal rights? An initial consultation with an employment lawyer can answer that question.
What Can a Lawyer Do?
If your employer gave no reason for its decision to fire you, what is there for a lawyer to consider? An employment lawyer will explore your history with the employer and the context of the termination to assess whether the employer violated any laws. Just because the employer did not give you a reason for your termination does not mean that the employer had no reason. The question for the lawyer is this: Was the employer's reason for firing you legal?
Examine Whether the Termination was Illegal
By asking you questions about the major aspects of your employment, as well as the details of your termination, the lawyer will explore the legality of the termination. For example, if you were fired after returning from a medical leave, was there a connection? Did the termination occur shortly after your return? Did anyone in management ever express hostility or impatience with employees who have medical issues? (For more information about wrongful termination claims, see Wrongful Termination: Was Your Firing Illegal?)
The lawyer will also ask about potential discrimination and retaliation claims. For example, were you the only person of color in management? Did your boss frequently express negative attitudes about women working after they have children? Did you find yourself in the unemployment line only days after complaining about pornography in the workplace?
Discuss Your Options
Another benefit to seeing a lawyer if you were fired without cause is that the lawyer can lay out all of the legal and other options available to you. For example, the lawyer can offer you resources about:
- state or local agencies where you may have to file complaints in order to preserve legal rights
- a state labor department where you can seek unpaid wages or overtime, or
- the state unemployment department (so you can file for benefits).
An employment lawyer will also tell you about the legal services the lawyer provides. These may include helping you file claims at the agencies mentioned above, sending a letter to your employer seeking severance pay or settlement of claims, or filing a lawsuit.
The lawyer may tell you that your only option is to file for unemployment and get on with your life. (For more information on unemployment benefits, see Unemployment Benefits: What If You’re Fired?)
Help You Move On
One of the main services an employment lawyer provides to you after you’ve been fired is to listen to you and give you an objective, professional evaluation of your potential case. The lawyer may not tell you what you want to hear (“you have a slam-dunk case!”), but you will leave the meeting satisfied that you know your rights and have thoroughly explored your options. That will allow you to make informed decisions about your future, armed with sound legal advice.
This can be part of a process of moving on from the anger and even grief of being fired to the next phase of your career.
To make the right decisions about how to move forward, you'll need to evaluate the costs of taking legal action versus the possible benefits of doing so. If the lawyer tells you that your termination violated the law in some way (for example, because the employer refused to accommodate your health condition), the lawyer will also tell you what you could possibly recover by suing your employer or attempting to settle your claims before litigation.
Of course, the lawyer can't predict the future. Judges and juries can be fickle, and any lawsuit carries with it plenty of risk. But the lawyer should be able to give you a general sense of how strong your claims are and what you can expect to be awarded if you win.
Ask any lawyer you consult to explain how he or she charges for legal work. Attorney fee amounts will differ based on what action you and the lawyer decide to take; some actions take longer or are more difficult than others. For example, the lawyer may offer to write a letter to your ex-employer to find out if it is possible to settle your claims without having to file a lawsuit. This will take a few to several hours of attorney time, while a full-blown lawsuit will take hundreds of attorney hours.
The lawyer will also tell you about available fee structures. The attorney may ask for a retainer fee (an amount paid up front to secure the attorney’s services) and/or an hourly fee. Or, the lawyer may offer to represent you on a contingent fee basis, which means that the lawyer receives a portion of whatever money is paid by the employer (either through settlement or after a jury award). If you don't get anything, neither does the lawyer. For more information about attorney fees, see What Will it Cost to Hire a Lawyer for Your Wrongful Termination Case?
Lawsuits are expensive and costs are a big part of the reason. Costs are expenses other than attorney’s fees and include filing fees, photocopy costs, deposition fees, expert witness fees, and the like.
Make an Informed Decision
Even if you have legal grounds to sue your employer, you may decide it is not worth it after the lawyer explains what you can possibly recover under the best case scenario and what you will have to pay to get it. And, all lawsuits are risky because they can be thrown out by the judge, witnesses may lie or just fail to persuade the jury, and juries can be unpredictable. The risk of losing is yet another factor that the lawyer will help you assess when you are doing the cost/benefit analysis.
Once you have gone over all of these factors with an employment lawyer, you can make an informed decision about whether or not you need to hire the lawyer to challenge your termination in some way.