If you’ve been fired and you think it was for an illegal reason, you may be considering filing a claim or a lawsuit for wrongful termination. Probably, one of your first questions will be: Do I need to hire a lawyer, or can I pursue my claim on my own? We recently surveyed readers who had a wrongful termination claim—including those who hired an attorney and those who didn’t—to see how their cases turned out, and whether having a lawyer made a difference. Here’s what we found out.
Does a Lawyer Make a Settlement or Award More Likely?
Naturally, anyone who’s been fired illegally wants to receive compensation for the resulting losses—usually in the form of money to pay for lost wages and benefits, emotional distress, and the cost of looking for new work. It may not be easy to get that result. But our survey showed that having an attorney more than doubled the likelihood of a positive outcome: Nearly two-thirds of readers with legal representation received a settlement or award, while less than one-third of those without a lawyer ended up with any compensation.
There are good reasons for these survey results. First of all, attorneys are more likely to accept cases that—in their experienced judgment—are more winnable. An employment lawyer should be able to analyze the facts and tell whether your firing might qualify as a wrongful termination (see more on that below). Once they accept a case, attorneys can help gather convincing evidence, and they’ll know the administrative and other steps that you need to take in order to protect your rights. All of this adds up to a higher probability of getting a settlement or award.
Does a Lawyer Mean Greater Compensation for Illegal Firing?
Our survey results show that legal representation also makes a big difference in the amount of compensation that fired workers received for their wrongful termination claims. Readers who hired a lawyer to help them through the claims process received an average of $48,800 as an out-of-court settlement or an award after a trial (before fees and costs were taken out), compared to an average of $19,200 for readers who handled their own claims. Even after subtracting 29% for attorneys’ fees (the average percentage of compensation that our readers paid their lawyers), those with lawyers walked away with nearly $15,500 more than unrepresented readers—an increase of 80%.
Once again, these numbers aren’t that surprising. Employers are more likely to take wrongful termination claims seriously when an attorney is involved. Also, lawyers are highly skilled negotiators. Based on their experience, they know how much a case is “worth” (the likely level of compensation, based on the amount of losses that an illegally fired employee suffered). Unlike employees, they recognize low-ball settlement offers when they see them. And they aren’t afraid to fight for what they know is fair compensation.
Does Having a Lawyer Mean Quicker Resolution of Wrongful Termination Claims?
Our survey showed that having a lawyer can mean a longer fight—but with better results. Readers who had an attorney help them file a lawsuit or a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or a similar state agency) told us it took an average of 14 months to resolve their case (by receiving a settlement or award or by learning they wouldn’t receive anything). In contrast, readers who went through the claims process or filed a lawsuit on their own reported average resolution times of 6 months. (Readers who never filed a formal claim or lawsuit reported a similar difference in average resolution times depending on legal representation—more than twice as long for those with attorneys.)
What might account for these longer resolution times with lawyers? The clearest explanation is that most of the steps leading to better results take time—like turning down the first settlement offer and negotiating for more money, filing a lawsuit and gathering evidence, or participating in mediation. Also, because attorneys are more likely to accept wrongful termination cases that are worth more, they’re often involved in cases where the employer has more to lose. When there’s more at risk, the employer is more likely to put up a fight—which can drag things out.