Feeling wronged? Try consultation before a lawsuit

WORKING LIFE

April 23, 1995|By DEBORAH JACOBS | DEBORAH JACOBS,Chronicle Features

I get lots of letters from people who feel they've been wronged by their company and want to know if they have a legal case. Most often they don't. And even if they did, I'd be lukewarm about it.

The main reason is that lawsuits are expensive. Plus, people get so caught up with past wrongs that they often lose sight of the present. It's usually easier to make peace with your boss -- or find a new job -- than it is to duke it out in court for the next umpteen years.

That said, I am strongly in favor of getting a one-hour consultation from a professional who can tell you how the law applies to your specific situation. But first, become an educated consumer.

For starters, I recommend reading Barbara Kate Repa's book, "Your Rights in the Workplace," available at your local library or from Nolo Press for $16; (800) 992-6656. This guide covers everything from sexual harassment to workers' comp to age discrimination. It will help you cut through the legalese that some lawyers speak.

Next, shop around for a lawyer who specializes in employment cases representing workers (rather than companies). Ask for recommendations from people you know who have been involved with similar cases.

Otherwise, state and local bar associations can refer you to lawyers in your area; unfortunately, they can't tell you anything about the quality of the service. Another source is the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, a multivolume reference book available in many libraries. Check the volume that lists lawyers by "area of practice," and look under the heading "labor and employment law."

Once you've compiled a short list of candidates, conduct telephone interviews, asking each lawyer about his or her experience with the matter at hand. If you're satisfied with the answers, schedule a one-hour consultation ($150 to $350 is typical).

Bring any relevant documents such as performance appraisals and office memos, as well as a typed outline explaining what's happened. Keep your summary short (no more than two pages) -- you'll be paying for the time it takes to read it.

Ask about possible solutions, likely results and how long it would take. Many situations can be resolved through letters, phone calls or in-person negotiation, and you can pay the lawyer by the hour to do what's needed.

Should you decide to sue, reach an understanding about the costs, which are negotiable. Try not to get stuck with a big retainer (more than one or two months of your take-home pay). A high retainer might be a sign that the lawyer doesn't think you have a good case.

Whatever the arrangement, insist on a written agreement. "Using a Lawyer . . . And What To Do if Things Go Wrong," by Kay Ostberg, includes a sample agreement and other consumer-friendly tips. The book is available for $8.95 from HALT, a consumer education group; (202) 347-9600.

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