Labor and Employment

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Unemployment Case?

By Serena Lipski, ​J.D., University of Toledo College of Law
Hiring a lawyer can be helpful in some, but not all, unemployment cases.

Losing your job can be overwhelming. You may be upset about the loss of your job, worried about paying your bills, and exhausted by searching for a new job. If handling an unemployment claim on top of all of that seems like too much to handle, you might be considering hiring an attorney to handle it for you. On one hand, there’s a lot of money at stake, and you want to make sure you get all of the benefits you are entitled to. On the other hand, hiring an attorney costs money and you can’t afford any unnecessary costs while you’re unemployed.

So how do you decide when to hire an attorney and when to handle your claim on your own? And if you do hire an attorney, how much will it cost? How do you pay the fees when you don’t have any income? And where do you find the right attorney?

When You Need a Lawyer

In most states, the initial filing process for unemployment benefits is fairly easy to navigate. It’s designed for unemployed workers to handle without the help of an attorney. The forms are straightforward, use simple language, and are usually available in both English and Spanish. Most state unemployment agencies also have toll-free phone numbers that claimants can call for help. Because of this, most claimants won’t need a lawyer to file an unemployment claim. However, claimants who have particular difficulty with filling out forms or who speak a language other than English or Spanish might need a lawyer. (To learn more about the filing process, see How to File an Unemployment Claim.)

A lawyer might also make sense when a claimant’s unemployment claim has been denied. In that case, the claimant will need to file an appeal and attend an administrative hearing. Although unemployment hearings are very informal, some claimants don’t feel comfortable representing themselves before an administrative law judge or assembling all of the documents they need to prove their claims. A lawyer can sort through all of the evidence, formulate legal arguments, and present the strongest case at the hearing.

A lawyer can be essential in cases where the claimant has both an unemployment claim and grounds to file a lawsuit against the employer. For example, if you were fired in violation of federal antidiscrimination laws, you will not only be entitled to unemployment, but you will also have a wrongful termination claim. In that case, you may want an attorney to represent you during the unemployment claim process. Employers will vigorously defend against an unemployment claim if it looks like it might lead to a larger case in court. The attorney can protect your rights during the hearing and get a head-start on gathering evidence from the employer about the illegal termination.

Paying Attorneys’ Fees

Affording an attorney can be difficult when you’re out of work. Some attorneys may agree to take an unemployment claim on a contingent basis. With this type of arrangement, the lawyer will take a portion of your awarded benefits (usually around one-third), rather than charging attorneys’ fees upfront. However, because unemployment awards are relatively small, this type of arrangement may not be worth it to some lawyers. (For more information on benefit amounts, see How Much Will I Get in Unemployment Benefits?)

A more cost-effective approach might be meeting with an attorney for a consultation before you file your appeal and then handling your own claim using the attorney’s advice. In that arrangement, the attorney usually will charge an hourly rate or a flat fee. The fee will vary based on where you live and the experience level of the attorney. In some states, such as Florida, your attorneys’ fees must be approved by the state agency.

Finding a Lawyer

Choosing a lawyer can be overwhelming. Start by asking your friends and family if they’ve had personal experience with any employment attorneys. You should ask not only about the outcome of the claim, but also about whether the attorney was competent and thorough, charged reasonable fees, and personally appeared at the unemployment hearing. You can also contact your state or local bar association for referrals or use our online database to search for an experienced employment lawyer in your area.

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