You’ve been axed for ‘not meeting performance goals” but you suspect something else led to your termination. How can you find out whether you have a legal case against your employer? By meeting with a lawyer, of course. But most people haven't hired lawyers before. You may not even know where to start your search -- or what to expect from your meeting with the lawyer.
People find lawyers in the same ways they find other service providers, such as by referrals from family and friends, or by searching online. But, there are many other resources available. Here are just a few.
Your local or state bar association is one good place to start. Some state bar associations certify lawyers who have qualified as specialists in particular areas. Ask your state bar association for a list of employment law specialists. Your state bar association can also tell you whether a particular attorney is in good standing (that is, an active bar member and not subject to any disciplinary proceedings).
Local or county bar associations in many states also operate their own lawyer referral services, usually as non-profit arms of the associations. Many of these services screen the attorneys they list for experience in the areas of law the attorneys practice.
There are other lawyer referral services, such as Nolo’s lawyer directory. You can browse Nolo’s directory by area of specialty and by geographic location.
In some areas and for some types of cases or clients, low-cost or even free legal services may be available. Examples include legal clinics organized by law schools, organizations that advocate for those whose civil rights have been violated (such the American Civil Liberties Union and other public interest groups), and government agencies that represent employees in rare cases (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). People whose claims implicate social justice issues (such as industry-wide discrimination) 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 whereby the attorney receives a percentage of any amount recovered for the client. If the client does not get anything, neither does the lawyer.
A first meeting with an attorney is your chance to evaluate the attorney and vice versa. 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 someone you are deciding whether to hire.
Here’s what you can expect to discuss at the first meeting.
Preparation is key to a successful initial meeting with an attorney. The attorney will be deciding whether to take your case, so be ready to present the facts in a clear, concise, organized way. For more information about how an attorney evaluates a for-cause termination case, see Will a Lawyer Take Your Wrongful Termination Case if You Were Fired For Cause?
The lawyer will want to hear a brief summary of what happened to you, including:
Bring copies of relevant documents. You don't have to copy every email or other piece of paper you collected during your employment, but be sure to bring your termination notice, any severance papers you received, relevant disciplinary or performance documentation, and so on. 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 how much time each takes.
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 service provider, whether it be a doctor, a therapist, a babysitter, or a lawyer, you want to hire someone you’re comfortable with and can trust. An attorney will be acting directly on your behalf, so it is crucial that you have confidence in the integrity, professionalism, and legal skills of any attorney you hire. Perhaps most importantly, you must be able to communicate effectively 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. And, ask the attorney for contact information for former clients who have agreed to provide a reference for the attorney. Talking to former clients can help you assess the lawyer's communication style and skills, which can be difficult to judge based on a single meeting.