There are some things in life – missing your connecting flight, needing a root canal – that, while you hope they don’t occur, are, nonetheless, events you need to be prepared for. These, however, pale in comparison to the prospect of confronting a case of employment discrimination. While it is not common, AABT is contacted from time to time by people in this situation. They very much want to avoid an adversarial proceeding while, at the same time, insuring that their rights are protected.
Central to successfully negotiating this traumatic situation is selecting a good lawyer. Fortunately, the qualities that make for any good attorney are generally applicable to choosing someone to handle a possible case of discrimination.
In selecting an attorney to represent you, it is best to set aside the stereotyped image of an attorney. A good lawyer is, first and foremost, your counselor. He/she should be the one person you can count on to not only know the facts of your case but tell you the unvarnished truth. This means that he/she may be just as valuable to you if they tell you up front that you don’t have a case or are able to negotiate the case rather than going to court. Contrary to television and the movies, the large majority of legal actions today are settled out of court.
You will need to begin by interviewing a couple of perspective candidates to represent you. Don’t expect to find a good attorney by consulting the ads in a phone book or web site. There’s simply not enough information there to make an informed decision.
If you know someone who has confronted a case of discrimination, it may be helpful to speak with them to see how satisfied they were with their attorney. Do not, however, base your decision solely on the basis of personal recommendation. Individuals inevitably vary in how they respond to their lawyer’s style and personality. Moreover, given the specialized nature of this area of the law, it may well be that you don’t know anyone who has had direct experience with a discrimination case. If not, and if you have a personal attorney in whom you have confidence, it is quite appropriate to ask him/her for recommendations. Employment discrimination is a specialized area of the law, and the more experience your attorney has in this area, the better off you are.
A quick check-list of things to look for in a lawyer would include:
1. Competence. Needless to say, the single most important consideration in finding a good lawyer is her/his competence. In an initial interview with a prospective attorney, it is critical to remember that you are interviewing a potential employee. It is appropriate, indeed essential, to inquire about the attorney’s experience and success handling employment discrimination cases. Is this a specialty or only a marginal part of a more general practice? Unless you are completely sold on your first candidate, feel free to interview one or two more candidates. Some attorneys will charge for this initial consultation while others will roll the fee into your bill should you retain them.
West-Law and Martindale-Hubbell are recognized as the gold-standard of legal directories. They are excellent for researching credentials, experience, and contact information. Both are available at your local library or from your personal attorney. Alternatively, you may consult Martindale-Hubbell at
and West-Law at
2. Comfort. Being involved in any type of legal case is extremely stressful. It is important that your attorney is someone with whom you are personally comfortable. Expertise contributes to comfort but does not guarantee it. You should be completely at ease talking with your lawyer. If you feel shy or awkward, it’s time to find alternative representation. You will need to feel free to share every piece of information about the case. After all, if you can’t be completely candid with your attorney, how can he/she properly represent you?
3. Personality. You want someone representing you who is professional but not overconfident or pushy. While it is critical to get their opinion of the merits of your case, no one, regardless of their experience or skill, can be positive of the outcome. Someone with a balanced and cautious approach is what you are looking for. You need someone willing and able to give you a candid judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
4. Money. You should feel free in your initial interview to discuss payment. In fact, this is essential to avoid later misunderstanding. Does your attorney expect to be paid by the hour or by the case. You should probably plan on paying several hundred dollars as a retainer up front. Attorneys frequently work “on the clock.” This means that some will add a five minute phone call to your bill while others, assuming such calls are infrequent, will not charge you.
In sum, a lawyer is called a “counselor” for a reason. She/he is the one person you should be able to rely on for completely honest advice. You should expect to have phone calls returned in a timely manner, questions answered clearly and patiently, combined with professional courtesy. It is paradoxical that, while national surveys consistently give low marks to lawyers as a profession, when individuals are asked about their personal attorney, they rate him/her highly. So, with some conscientious research, it is likely you can find a lawyer with whom you will be pleased should the need ever arise.
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