To fully enforce state and federal laws protecting employees against illegal actions by their employers, you will need an attorney in many situations where you have a serious problem with your employer and need to take legal action. Most attorneys representing employees do so because they understand that non-unionized employees are relatively powerless against employers.
While you may be caught up in a serious employment dispute only once or twice in your lifetime, some larger employers and their attorneys handle many employment disputes every single day. Most employers have much more experience and resources than you to evaluate and handle claims. An employee who has not consulted an attorney can be at a real disadvantage.
Succeeding in an employment lawsuit without a lawyer (called filing "pro se") is virtually impossible. Besides knowing the law (only some of which is covered elsewhere on this website) and the associated court procedures, an attorney will know what information you need to win, how to get it, how to present witnesses and documents to the court and jury, and how to prevent a company and its attorneys from using unfair tactics to win the case. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you will win and save yourself some attorneys fees by taking the case to trial by your self. You could end up with nothing. Worse, you might end up having to pay your employer for the expenses they incurred in defending your lawsuit.
Here are some of the situations in which you are strongly encouraged to speak with an attorney immediately:
- You have concerns about how you are being treated in the workplace or whether your termination or lay off was legal;
- You are considering quitting your employment because of your employer's apparently unlawful conduct;
- You do not want to or cannot negotiate with your employer regarding severance pay;
- You do not clearly understand your rights or are unsure of the proper action to take after your termination;
- You are nearing the end of your "statute of limitations" or deadline for filing suit and are still unsure of how or where to file a claim;
- You are being pressured to sign a complicated and lengthy "release of claims" that you do not fully understand;
- You want to file a lawsuit in state or federal court;
- You know of many other employees who want to bring the same type of claim against the same employer;
- You are dissatisfied with a governmental agency's (such as the EEOC) investigation of your complaint;
- You have powerful evidence that your termination was illegal.
If you delay contacting an attorney, you will not know what you may be able to do to prevent your situation from worsening and you may not properly document events as they occur. Because it is your burden to prove an illegal motive, such as discrimination or retaliation, you must document the evidence that supports your claims. If you fail to document events as they happen, later you may not have the evidence necessary to prove your case. You need documents or a witness to confirm facts and events. If it is your word against your manager's word, it will be very difficult to prove your claim.
Example: if you are given a poor job evaluation, placed on a "performance improvement plan" and then threatened with termination, an attorney will help you to evaluate your possible claims and how to document your case. Usually, the employer is very experienced at documenting poor performance to defend itself against claims. However, by documenting events in a way that refutes the reasons for the adverse action, the employer may back off.
Without legal help early on, you may not be prepared to counter the employer's stated reason for your poor evaluation or termination.