Hiring a Lawyer for an Employment Issue

Get some tips on finding and working with an employment lawyer.

By , Lawyer and Journalist

If you have a workplace dispute with your employer, you might need to hire an employment lawyer. While some issues can be resolved with open communication, often times, a lawyer is essential to getting compensation or other justice for workplace violations. This is especially true if you were fired for a discriminatory reason, you are owed large sums in unpaid wages, or your workplace problem involves a complex or ambiguous area of law.

Finding an Employment Lawyer

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find a reputable lawyer. Even if your friends or family don't know any employment lawyers, they might know other lawyers—such as a family lawyer or estate planning lawyer—who can provide a recommendation. Keep in mind that individual preferences for a particular lawyer are guided by intangibles such as personality or your comfort level with the person. Here are a few questions you may want to ask a person who gives you a glowing review of a particular employment lawyer:

  • Did this lawyer respond to all your telephone calls and other communications promptly?
  • Did the lawyer take the time to listen to your explanation and understand your situation fully?
  • Were all the bills you received properly itemized and in line with the cost projections you got at the start of your case?
  • Did this lawyer personally handle your case, or was it handed off to a younger, less-experienced lawyer in the same firm?

If you can't find a personal referral, there are several organizations and services that can connect you with a qualified employment attorney, including:

  • State or local bar associations. Every state in the country has its own bar association, which is typically the governing body that licenses, monitors, and disciplines all lawyers practicing in the state. Many state bar associations operate attorney referral services for use by members of the public for a small fee. Many cities and counties operate their own bar associations and offer lawyer referral services, usually through nonprofit arms of the bar associations.
  • Private referral services. You can also find referral services through private companies. For example, Nolo matches employees up with employment lawyers for a free case evaluation.
  • Local legal clinics. Some may only make referrals to lawyers with appropriate knowledge and experience. And some may have lawyers on staff who will handle your case for a low cost or free of charge. Locate your community's legal aid clinics by looking in the telephone directory under Legal Aid Society or Legal Services—or check with the nearest law school.
  • Nonprofit organizations. You might also find a referral through organizations that serve as advocates for the legal rights of minority groups, such as gay rights coalitions and local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). National organizations that deal with specific types of workplace rights, such as the National Association of Working Women, may know of competent lawyers for referrals.

Be careful that people do not merely give you the names of lawyers they have heard of—or one who handled an entirely different kind of case, such as a divorce or a house closing. Any lawyer can become well known just by buying a lot of advertising time on television or a large block in the yellow pages. Beware that in many states, lawyers can advertise any area of specialization they choose, even if they have never before handled a case in the area.

Meeting With an Employment Lawyer

Before narrowing down your list, do a little research on each lawyer. Check out the lawyer's website or other online profile. In most states, you can also confirm that the lawyer is in good standing—meaning currently authorized to practice law and not facing disciplinary charges for misconduct—through your state's bar association. Some states have a searchable online database where you can find lawyers by name.

Once you have a few names, start by calling for an appointment. Some lawyers will try to screen you over the phone by asking you to discuss the basics of your case. A little of this can be helpful to you both. You can begin to assess the lawyer's phoneside manner; he or she can begin to assess whether you truly need expert legal advice.

The next step is an in-person meeting, usually at the lawyer's offices. Come prepared with any documents that are relevant to your case, as well as questions that you want to ask the lawyer. Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • Do you think I have a strong case? What kind of compensation can I expect to receive?
  • How many years of employment law experience do you have? Have you handled many cases like mine?
  • Who will be doing the majority of the work on my case?
  • How often will you update me on the status of my case?
  • How do you charge for attorneys' fees?
  • Will I need to pay for any costs up front?
  • How long will my case take?

Some lawyers will provide a free initial consultation to decide whether your situation requires legal action. However, others will charge a reasonable fee for legal advice. A charge of between $75 and $250 for a one-hour consultation is typical. Organize the facts in your case well before going to your consultation, and be clear about what you are after—whether it is a financial settlement or reinstatement to your old job. Bring any important documents (such as an employment contract, disciplinary warning, or proposed severance agreement) with you to the meeting. An hour should be more than enough to explain your case and obtain at least a basic opinion of how it might be approached and what it is likely to cost. If you find the right lawyer and can afford the charge, it can be money well spent.

Keep in mind that very few employment law disputes actually end up in a courtroom. Most are settled or resolved in some other way. So you need not be swayed by a lawyer's likely effect on a jury alone. A good lawyer may also offer the valuable advice that you do not have a good case—or may suggest a good strategy for negotiating a settlement.

Paying an Employment Lawyer

Most disagreements between lawyers and clients involve fees, so be sure to get all the details involving money in writing—including the hourly billing rate or the contingency fee arrangement (see below), the frequency of billing, and whether you will be required to deposit money in advance to cover expenses. Fee arrangements depend on several factors, including the scope of the work, the type and strength of the legal claim, and the geographical location in which the lawyer practices.

Hourly Fee Versus Contingency Fee

Many workplace cases are handled under some form of contingent fee arrangement, in which a lawyer agrees to handle a case for a fixed percentage of the amount finally recovered in a lawsuit. If you win the case, the lawyer's fee comes out of the money awarded to you. If you lose, neither you nor the lawyer will get any money. A lawyer's willingness to take your case on a contingent fee is usually a sign of the lawyer's faith in the strength of your claim. A lawyer who is not firmly convinced that your case is a winner is unlikely to take you on as a contingency fee client.

Although there is no set percentage for contingency fees, in most types of cases, lawyers demand about a third if the case is settled before a lawsuit is filed with the courts, and 40% if a case has to go to trial. Keep in mind that the terms of a contingency fee agreement may be negotiable. You can try to get your lawyer to agree to a lower percentage—especially if the case is settled quickly—or to absorb some of the court costs.

Some employment lawyers charge on an hourly basis instead of a contingency fee. This can be advantageous for an employee if the scope of the work is relatively small, such as reviewing a contract or negotiating a better employment package. However, be very careful before agreeing to an hourly rate if you are filing a lawsuit against your employer. Lawsuits are time-consuming and can take years to resolve. In reality, most employees can't afford tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees, especially when there is no guarantee of success.

If you meet with a lawyer whom you like, but who is unwilling to take your case on a straight contingency basis, explore other options. For example, some lawyers are willing to charge employees a reduced hourly rate or a flat fee in combination with a contingency fee. At the very least, shop around to a few lawyers, discuss you specific goals and objectives, and arrange for a cap on hourly fees.

Court Costs and Awards of Attorneys' Fees

Sometimes, a lawyer working under a contingency agreement will require that you pay all out-of-pocket expenses, such as filing fees charged by the courts and the cost of transcribing depositions—interviews of witnesses and others involved in a lawsuit who may provide additional information about the facts and circumstances. If so, the lawyer will want you to deposit a substantial amount of money—a thousand dollars or more—with the law firm to cover these expenses. From your standpoint, it is a much better arrangement for the lawyer to advance such costs and get repaid out of your recovery. A commonsense arrangement might involve your advancing a small amount of money for some costs, with the attorney advancing the rest.

In some types of workplace lawsuits, such as discrimination or harassment claims, the court may award you attorneys' fees as part of the final judgment. However, this award may not be large enough to cover the entire amount owed to your attorney under the legal fee contract. Therefore, the contingency fee contract should spell out what happens to a court award of attorneys' fees.

One approach is to have the fees paid to the attorney in their entirety—and subtract that amount from the contingency fee on your award. Another approach, which is less advantageous to you, is to add the awards for fees and damages and calculate the attorney's contingency fee on the entire amount.

Managing Your Lawyer

Most complaints against lawyers have to do with their failure to communicate with their clients. Your lawyer may be the one with the legal expertise, but the rights that are being pursued are yours—and you are the most important person involved in your case. You have the right to demand that your lawyer be reasonably available to answer your questions and to keep you posted on your case. You may need to put some energy into managing your lawyer.

Carefully check every statement. Each statement or bill should list costs that the lawyer has paid or that you are expected to pay. If you question whether a particular bill complies with your written fee agreement, call your lawyer and politely demand that a new, more detailed version be sent before you pay it. Don't feel as though you are being too pushy: The laws in many states actually require thorough detail in lawyers' bills.

Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the laws and decisions involved in your case. By doing so, you will be able to monitor your lawyer's work and may even be able to make a suggestion or provide information that will move your case along faster. Certainly if the other side offers a settlement, you will be in a better position to evaluate whether or not it makes sense to accept it.

Keep your own calendar of dates and deadlines. Note when papers and appearances are due in court. If you rely on your lawyer to keep your case on schedule, you may be unpleasantly surprised to find that an important deadline has been missed. Many a good case has been thrown out simply because of a lawyer's forgetfulness. Call or write to your lawyer at least a week before any important deadline in your case to inquire about plans to meet it.

Maintain your own file on your case. By having a well-organized file of your own, you will be able to discuss your case with your lawyer intelligently and efficiently—even over the telephone. Being well informed will help keep your lawyer's effectiveness up and your costs down. Be aware that if your lawyer is working on an hourly basis, you will probably be charged for telephone consultations. But they are likely to be less expensive than office visits.

Firing a Lawyer

If your relationship with a particular lawyer does not seem to be working out for some reason, or if you truly believe your case is not progressing as it should, consider asking another lawyer to take over. Beware, however, that if you are in the midst of a lawsuit, the judge may need to approve the switch—and has the discretion to refuse the request if he or she believes change would cause an unreasonable delay or prejudice the other side.

If you are able and anxious to change lawyers, be clear with the first one that you are taking your business elsewhere, and send him or her an immediate written notification of your decision. Otherwise, you could end up receiving bills from both lawyers—both of whom might claim that they handled the lion's share of your case, complicating the matter of who is owed what.

Before you pay anything, be sure that the bill does not amount to more than you agreed to pay. If you have a contingency fee arrangement, it is up to your new lawyer and former lawyer to work out how to split the fee.

Take prompt action against any lawyer whose behavior appears to be deceptive, unethical, or otherwise illegal. A call to your state or local bar association should provide you with guidance on what types of lawyer behavior are prohibited and how to file a complaint.

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