Labor and Employment

Wrongful Termination: Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer?

By Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law
Learn how wrongful termination cases work and whether a lawyer is necessary.

Do you believe you were illegally fired or laid off from your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you need to hire a lawyer. Legally speaking, you are free to represent yourself throughout any stage of your wrongful termination case. However, there are several reasons why it’s often in your best interest to hire a lawyer.

Do I Have a Wrongful Termination Case?

One of the first reasons to consult with a lawyer is to figure out if you even have a wrongful termination case to pursue. Just because your termination was unfair doesn’t mean that it was illegal. For example, it’s unfair for your boss to fire you to make room for a relative or college friend. However, workplace nepotism or favoritism isn’t illegal. To have a claim, your employer must have violated an employment contract or a specific federal, state, or local law.

Examples of illegal reasons for firing include:

  • discrimination based on a protected characteristic
  • refusal to provide reasonable accommodation for a disability
  • refusal to provide legally-protected time off work
  • retaliation for exercising a legal right, and
  • retaliation for reporting illegal activity by the company (whistleblowing).

Several other types of firing are illegal. (To learn more about illegal reasons for firing, see our Wrongful Termination FAQ for Employees.) However, the laws vary greatly from state to state, and even from city to city. An employment lawyer can quickly assess your situation and determine if you have a wrongful termination case.

Can I Handle My Case on My Own?

Legally speaking, you are free to handle your wrongful termination case on your own. However, practically speaking, most employees won’t get very far—or won’t get very much in compensation—without a lawyer’s help.

In a couple of situations, it can make sense to forgo hiring a lawyer. One example is if the illegal firing didn’t cause you much damage, financial or otherwise. For example, suppose the firing wasn’t particularly traumatic and you landed a new, better paying job within a couple of weeks. In this situation, you might just want to negotiate a fair severance package with your employer and move on.

Another example is where there is an established government agency that investigates complaints. For example, if you were fired due to your race, you would file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC would investigate your complaint and could help you and your employer reach a resolution. However, even in these types of administrative proceedings, a lawyer can be essential to getting you the compensation you deserve, especially if the firing has caused you significant damage.

What Can a Wrongful Termination Lawyer Do for Me?

One of the biggest benefits of hiring an employment lawyer is that it will help you understand the value of your claim. Without any legal expertise, it’s difficult to know how much your case is worth and whether a settlement offer is a fair one.

A lawyer can help you by evaluating the strength of the evidence in your case—for example, is there enough proof to show that your employer broke the law? If not, the lawyer can help you gather the evidence you need. A lawyer has legal tools at his or her disposal to obtain records, question witnesses, and more. If it turns out the evidence is lacking, the lawyer can explain how that affects the value of your case.

A lawyer can also determine what kind of compensation you’re likely to recover and how much. Some losses are limited or not compensated in certain types of wrongful termination cases, for example. And, a lawyer will know about additional penalties, interest, or other sums that you can recover. Your lawyer will calculate all of these sums and set reasonable expectations for what kind of settlement you should consider.

The mere fact of having a lawyer will also get your employer to take your claim more seriously. Lawyers only take cases that they think they can win. It’s not uncommon for employers to start negotiating once a lawyer gets involved. For all of these reasons, employees often fare better in their wrongful termination cases with a lawyer, even after taking attorneys’ fees into account.

Next Steps

If you’re interested in hiring an employment lawyer, you should do your research. Call around to several lawyers and meet with a couple once you’ve narrowed down your list. For additional tips, see our article on how to find a good wrongful termination lawyer.

Because many employment lawyers don’t charge workers by the hour, you probably won’t need to pay for legal fees out-of-pocket. To learn more, see our article on how much a wrongful termination lawyer costs.

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