If your employer has treated you differently based on your gender, race, religion, or other protected characteristic, you may be entitled to take legal action. If you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit or administrative claim, you’ll probably need help understanding your legal rights and whether you have a case that’s worth pursuing. This is where an experienced employment lawyer comes in. (For more information about discrimination law in your state, see Employment Discrimination in Your State.)
While there are federal employment discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination based on certain protected characteristics (sex, race, national origin, religion, age, pregnancy, and disability), each state also has its own employment discrimination laws. These laws vary from state to state and may cover additional protected characteristics (such as sexual orientation or marital status) and may have additional types of compensation available to employees. Some counties and cities also have their own antidiscrimination ordinances which may offer additional protections that aren’t available under state or federal law.
Because multiple sets of laws might apply to your situation, it’s important to consult with a lawyer who is experienced in national, state, and local employment discrimination laws. Fortunately, there a several resources that maintain lists of attorneys by both practice area and geographic location.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency that enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on certain protected characteristics, including sex, pregnancy, race, color, religion, national origin, age, and disability. The EEOC field offices, which are divided into 15 districts, usually have attorney referral lists for plaintiffs with potential federal discrimination claims. Contact the EEOC at 800-669-4000, or enter your zip code into the EEOC’s Office List and Jurisdictional Map, to find your local EEOC field office and ask about a referral list.
Most states also have their own agencies that enforce state antidiscrimination laws. Some of these agencies may also maintain lists of attorneys who handle employment discrimination cases. If your state has a fair employment agency, you can find it by entering your zip code into the EEOC’s Office List and Jurisdictional Map and selecting “State and Local Agencies” in the left sidebar.
Each state has a bar association which licenses lawyers to practice law and disciplines them if they violate professional rules. State bar associations also maintain a list of each attorney who has ever been admitted to practice law in the state. Many state bars have online databases that you can use to search for attorneys by name. In addition to showing you the name and contact information for the lawyer, the database will show you if the lawyer is in good standing (that is, licensed to practice law and not subject to disciplinary action). You can also search the database by geographic region and legal specialty to find a lawyer.
Some counties also have bar associations that administer lawyer referral services for the public. The referral service usually works by having you call in and provide some information about your legal problem. After a short interview, the referral service staff will put you in touch with an attorney who is experienced in handling cases such as yours. Search online to find your county bar association and look for the “find a lawyer” or “lawyer referral” link.
Many attorneys who handle employment discrimination cases join professional organizations geared to attorneys who practice a certain type of law. For example, the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) is an organization of lawyers who represent employees in all types of employment cases around the country, including discrimination cases. You can find attorneys by location and employment law specialty on the NELA website.
You can also find private referral services in every state. For example, Nolo offers its own lawyer directory, which lists attorneys from all over the country by both geographic location and practice area.
As with selecting a doctor or any other professional, your personal network of family and friends can be a good source of referrals. One advantage to this type of referral is that it comes with a personal assessment of the attorney’s skills, demeanor, and integrity from someone you know and trust.
After you have gathered a few names and checked each lawyer out with your state bar, you’re ready to make some calls and narrow down your selection.
Call each lawyer from your short list and give her or him a brief summary of your situation. Most lawyers will not charge for the initial telephone in-take consultation, but be sure to ask about fees upfront. It’s helpful to describe your situation in a clear, concise way (it helps to write an outline before you talk to a lawyer). This consultation also gives you a chance to assess the attorney:
Discrimination cases can raise sensitive issues and are often fraught with emotion. When choosing a lawyer for your discrimination case, you may want to consider how well the lawyer seems to understand and appreciate the sensitivities of your case.
If you feel comfortable with the lawyer and he or she is interested in getting more details, set up an in-person meeting. Bring any evidence you have with you to the meeting, along with your outline of your situation and the names of any witnesses to the events at issue.
During the meeting, ask yourself the same questions listed above. It’s very important that you and the lawyer feel comfortable working together and that you trust the lawyer.
Be sure to discuss the lawyer’s fees at this meeting. If you are talking to more than one lawyer, you can compare the way the fees are structured. In most cases, an employment attorney will represent you on a contingent fee basis, meaning that he or she will take a percentage of any amounts recovered for you. However, the percentage may differ from attorney to attorney and costs may be handled differently. Before signing a fee agreement, make sure you understand exactly what will be taken out of your recovery if you are successful in your case.