Do You Need a Lawyer to File for Unemployment Benefits?

An employment lawyer can help you file for unemployment and avoid pitfalls that can lead to denial of benefits.

Filing for unemployment involves working your way through a governmental agency maze. Every state (as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) has a website dedicated to its unemployment compensation program, where you can find application forms, get information about whether or not you qualify, learn how much you may receive, and even file electronically. You can find a link to all of these sites at the CareerOneStop website. But, the rules that govern whether or not you qualify for benefits and what you have to do to keep getting them differ from state to state. A lawyer can help you finding your way through the administrative maze.

How Can a Lawyer Help With Unemployment Benefits?

An employment lawyer will have experience navigating your state’s unemployment compensation process. Although each state’s program is a bit different, there are certain common concepts that a lawyer can help you understand.

Your State's Unemployment Agency

The state’s website will have information and a link to the agency that administers its unemployment compensation program. But, you may want to learn more about the agency and how it works from an employment lawyer before diving into the application process on your own.


Each state has its own rules for deciding who is eligible for unemployment benefits and who is not. Every state requires that you be out of work, obviously. But there are several other common eligibility requirements that you have to meet to receive benefits. These include:

  • earning enough in wages over a specified period to qualify
  • being physically able, ready, and willing to work
  • losing your job through no fault of your own, and
  • actively looking for work.

You will know whether or not you are able, ready, and willing to work and actively seeking work. However, the other requirements can be tricky. That’s where a lawyer can lend a hand. For example, each state sets the specific period in which your wages are calculated to see whether you earned enough to get benefits. A lawyer will know what that period is and how the wages are calculated. The calculations themselves are often complicated and may involve a period of time that is not counted. An employment lawyer will know how to figure that out for you.

“No Fault” Separation

In order to receive benefits, many states require that you lost your job through no fault of your own, called a “no fault” separation. Examples of no fault separations are lay-offs for lack of work, separation at the end of a contract term, termination for reasons other than employee misconduct, and voluntary quits for good cause.

Many disputes with employers over entitlement to unemployment benefits stem from the “misconduct” issue. You may believe that the reason for your termination was an innocent mistake, while your ex-employer may disagree and view the same behavior as misconduct that should disqualify you from getting benefits. It is up to the state unemployment agency to decide the matter when these disputes occur. Your ex-employer will have an attorney advising it during this process, and you should too.

Disputes also arise when an employee quits a job and then seeks unemployment benefits, arguing that the departure was for “good cause.” Again, each state defines “good cause” differently. For example, California allows ex-employees to receive unemployment benefits if they had to quit a job because of a family emergency (such as the need to care for a sick relative). Ask an employment lawyer whether your resignation was for “good cause” under your state’s laws.

What You Have to do to Continue to Receive Benefits

Even if you are awarded unemployment benefits by your state’s unemployment agency, there are certain requirements you have to fulfill in order to continue to receive compensation. For example, you must actively seek work throughout the unemployment compensation period. And, you will need to be able to show evidence of these job search efforts to the state unemployment agency.

You also have to continue to be physically able, ready, and willing to work throughout the payment period.

If you earn money during the payment period, you have to report that to the state agency. Your unemployment benefits will be reduced as a result.

You will probably want to talk to a lawyer before making certain decisions that may affect your benefits (such as going to school full-time rather than seeking work), to find out whether you will lose benefits as a result.

Appealing Denial of Benefits

If your state’s unemployment agency denies benefits to you, you can appeal that decision. Once again, your ex-employer will have legal representation at this appeal, and you should too.You have a better chance of winning your appeal if your lawyer can make strong legal arguments on your behalf.

What Will a Lawyer Charge?

While you may be entitled to recover attorney’s fees from your ex-employer in some states, you will likely have to pay an attorney to advise you at the application stage and later. However, you may be able to work out a fee arrangement for limited services (in other words, just advising you at the application stage or representing you only on appeal) that can make fees more affordable.

And, there may be clinics or other public services that offer free or low-cost legal services to terminated employees.

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