Were you laid off illegally? No law prohibits employers from cutting staff or trimming their budgets when economic times get tough, but perhaps you suspect you were really fired for a reason that's discriminatory, in retaliation for asserting your legal rights, in violation of laws that require employers to give notice, or for some other illegal reason. (To learn more about possible legal claims arising from a layoff, see Will a Lawyer Take Your Case If You Were Laid Off or RIF'ed?)
If you believe you may have legal claims arising from your layoff, you should consult with a lawyer. But, how do find a lawyer? How do you know if a lawyer is right for your case? Can you afford lawyer fees? Read on to learn how to prepare yourself to select the right lawyer.
There are many resources for finding attorneys, including some that you use to find other professionals. Ask around; your family members, friends, colleagues, and others you trust may be good attorney reference resources. There are other resources as well.
Some state bar associations have legal specialty certification and will list attorneys who have qualified as specialists in particular subjects. Check your state bar association for employment law specialists. An additional public service that state bar associations offer is certifying whether a particular attorney is in good standing (that is, an active bar member and not subject to any disciplinary proceedings). So, once you find an attorney, you can check the state bar site to verify the lawyer's membership and disciplinary standing.
Check with state and county bar associations to see whether they offer lawyer referral services. Many do, and some even require the attorneys who receive referrals to accept a limited initial consultation fee.
There are also private lawyer referral services that attorneys pay to be listed on. Nolo’s lawyer directorylets you browse by area of specialty and by geographic location.
Depending on the type of wrongful layoff case you may have, low-cost or even free legal services may be available. Among these are legal clinics organized by law schools, services for those whose civil rights have been violated (such the American Civil Liberties Union, or other public interest group), and governmental agency assistance (such as from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission). If your layoff involved social justice issues (for example, industry-wide discrimination), you may qualify for such services.
In addition, some attorneys will take employment cases on a contingent fee basis. A contingent fee attorney retainer agreement is not a contract for free legal services. Rather, it is an agreement you enter with the attorney that the attorney will receive a percentage of any amount recovered through his or her representation of you. If you do not get anything, neither does the lawyer.
You will have your first chance to evaluate the attorney at the initial meeting. Of course, the attorney will also be evaluating you. At the end of the day, though, you have to be able to work closely and effectively with any lawyer you hire. So, your first meeting with the lawyer really is your "job interview" of a person you may have a close relationship with for days, months, or even years.
Here’s what you can expect at the first meeting.
The better prepared you are to present the facts of your situation to the lawyer, the more useful your meeting will be. Be ready to present the facts in a clear, concise, organized way. (For more information on how a lawyer views the facts of a layoff case, see Will a Lawyer Take Your Case If You Were Laid Off or RIF'ed?)
The lawyer will want to hear a brief summary of what happened to you. This summary should include:
Bring copies of relevant documents (but not every email or other piece of paper you collected during your employment). A written chronology of events (basically, a timeline of what happened, when) helps the lawyer get a handle on the facts, too.
Ask the lawyer to lay out the options available to you. Options may range from filing a complaint with a governmental agency to severance negotiations to filing a lawsuit. You may have signed a binding arbitration agreement; if so, the lawyer can discuss that procedure with you. Ask the lawyer to describe each option and to estimate the amount of time each takes (this depends largely on the types of claims you might have).
A lawyer considering your case will assess your financial losses, or damages, from being terminated. These include lost pay, lost benefits, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages. The lawyer will also assess whether any statutory penalties may be sought.
For more information about damages in a wrongful termination case, see Damages in a Wrongful Termination Case.
Ask the lawyer to describe all attorney fee options available, including whether fees differ depending on the type of service the lawyer provides. For example, does the lawyer charge a different fee to draft a settlement letter and attempt settlement negotiations than to file a lawsuit? And, ask for an estimate of costs (such as photocopying expenses, filing fees, deposition fees, and expert witness fees).
When you hire any professional, whether it be a doctor, a therapist, or a lawyer, you want to hire someone you’re comfortable with and can trust. Because an attorney is acting directly on your behalf, it is crucial that you have confidence in his or her integrity, professionalism, and legal skills. Perhaps most importantly, you must be able to communicate well with your attorney and vice versa. A failure of communication makes effective legal representation impossible.
You can verify an attorney’s professional qualifications by checking your state bar association’s website for the certification described above. Ask the lawyer how many cases like yours he or she has handled. And, ask the attorney for contact information for former clients who have agreed to provide a reference for the attorney. A former client may give you a good read on the attorney.