For James, trying to recoup unpaid wages from a previous employer has become an exercise in futility and frustration.
"The crux of the problem is they have tried to stonewall me at every point – ignoring communication, claiming they were broke, saying they were going to send over a debt repayment agreement only to go radio silent for weeks and then say that they were still working on it," he says.
Though the debt is now nearly two years old, James has no interest in writing it off. At a loss for what else he could accomplish on his own, however, he recently decided to hire an employment lawyer.
"I am very happy with the decision as I've wasted over a year trying to do it myself with no success," James says. "So far, the experience has been great. My biggest compliment is that they respond to all of my questions and emails promptly. They are responsive and thorough whenever I ask how it's going or if something is relevant."
James' situation is one of many scenarios in the services of an employment lawyer might be useful. Here, we take a look at what employment lawyers do and when hiring one might be in your best interest.
What is an employment lawyer?
Employment lawyers specialize in matters pertaining to the workplace.
Various federal and state laws exist that regulate employment relationships. Likewise, court rulings through the years have established precedents in interpreting these laws. The average person (or company, depending on who hires the employment lawyer) may have difficulty locating legal information applicable to a specific problem or be confused by the language used.
Employment lawyers perform the necessary research, present clients with their findings, lay out options, and represent their hirer in court or other legal meetings.
What might warrant hiring an employment lawyer?
Wage-related issues, such as the one James is experiencing, are a common reason for seeking out an employment lawyer. People also often retain or consult an employment lawyer when they believe they might be experiencing one of the following situations at work or in the hiring process:
- pregnancy discrimination
- discrimination due to a disability
- unfair firing
- a gender wage gap
- unsafe work conditions
- punishment for whistle-blowing
- employer violation of a work contract
When should you consider hiring an employment lawyer?
If you are trying to decide whether hiring an employment lawyer is in your best interest, Craig D. Levey, an employment attorney with Bennett & Belfort, P.C. in Cambridge, Mass., suggests thinking about questions such as:
- Am I on the verge of being wrongfully terminated?
- Has my employer potentially violated the law in its actions towards me?
- Am I being asked to sign a legal document I do not understand?
- Would an attorney provide necessary leverage in negotiations with my employer?
How do I find an employment lawyer?
People hiring an employment lawyer need to feel comfortable with their choice and confident about the firm's ability to provide proper representation. Putting effort into selection beyond calling someone seen on TV or randomly pulling a name from a phone book can yield a more satisfying experience.
James spoke with three firms before choosing one that impressed him with its responsiveness from day one.
"Right now, the firm is still building their case, but they came well reviewed and have experience representing both employees and employers, which was appealing as they've likely seen a variety of employment cases," he says.
Levey recommends seeking a referral from a family member, friend, or another attorney, noting that "a trusted source who has previous experience with the attorney is a good resource in the search for legal counsel."
If you don't not know anyone to ask for a referral, Levey suggests contacting the local bar association for information on attorneys in the area.
What does an employment lawyer cost?
Lastly, it's no secret that legal services can be expensive. If you cannot find – or don't understand – fee information during the course of your research, bring up the subject with the firm you are considering.
"Individuals should meet with an attorney for an initial consultation before they engage the attorney's services long term," Levey says. "A one-hour consultation will allow the individual to meet the attorney, determine the viability of their legal matter, and learn the costs associated with representation moving forward. This way, if the estimated attorney's fees are in excess of what the individual can afford, the individual is not obligated to proceed. The individual is only required to pay for the initial consultation."
What might that consultation fee be? According to the legal information website Nolo, "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."
If you move forward, it's crucial to understand financial arrangements. Some firms bill by the hour and require you to pay a retainer fee up front as an advance against expected fees and costs. Others work on a contingency basis, meaning their earnings are contingent upon what you get awarded in the end. A flat fee is another possibility.
Weighing the costs of hiring an employment lawyer versus potential gains is a potentially tricky matter. In the end, however, many people feel the advantage of having an expert in their corner is worth it.