If you are considering hiring an employment attorney, it is understandable that you may have questions. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions from companies interested in our services. (You may click on a question in the column at the right to go directly to the answer.)
When is the best time to engage an employment attorney?
Right now, if you have not already done so. Unfortunately, many businesses wait until they have an employment law problem before hiring an employment attorney. That's like waiting until there is a health emergency before consulting a physician. In both cases it may be far less expensive and less painful to have regular checkups -- and spot problems early. Employment issues are an ongoing concern throughout the life of any business. You should have an employment attorney as part of your regular management team -- someone already familiar with your business so you don't have to start from the beginning explaining your situation whenever a problem arises.
I don't have any employment issues now. What would the attorney do?
There may be employment issues lurking of which you are not even aware. (Consider all the discrimination charges filed in 2007 as this chart shows.) An attorney may recommend an employment audit. That's a review of your compliance with federal and state laws, including your current policy manual and other relevant documents such as employee applications, job descriptions and evaluations. Areas of risk will be identified and action steps recommended.
What questions should I ask to screen a prospective employment attorney?
Here are a few: What businesses similar to mine have you had as clients? Similar types of problems? Similar in size? Similar business type? How long have you had them as clients? How did you help these businesses to be successful? What is your general approach, such as when dealing with interpersonal conflicts?
Should I ask for cost estimates before hiring an attorney for a particular project?
A good attorney should have some idea as to how many hours it will take to complete a particular type of project such as an employee policy manual for a particular size and type of business. Ask for a range and the hourly rate. Also, insist that if the attorney encounters problems that were not anticipated -- which might cause the bill to go higher -- that you be told as early as possible ahead of time. You can also ask the attorney to provide status reports during a month -- rather than waiting until the end of the month -- so you can monitor progress and costs as you go.
I don't have a big legal budget. How can I stretch dollars without hurting myself?
There are ways you can reduce legal costs without placing yourself in greater legal jeopardy. One of the best is to come prepared when meeting or speaking with your attorney. Write down questions and discussion points ahead of time. Keep good employment and HR records. Get all the facts out on the table early. Employment attorneys bill by the hour. So save money by saving time -- the attorney's and your own. Another strategy for reducing costs is to hire a firm that appropriately fits your size. A small or mid-size business will not wish to carry the overhead of a larger law office more geared toward international or multi-state clients.
What about using self-help legal guides -- like books or the Internet?
The risks involved are not worth the money saved. Employment law is a complex and fast-moving field, which makes it hard for books or the Internet to keep up. In addition, the particular needs of one company will probably be very different from the needs of another. Employment laws also vary greatly from state to state. All these factors make the types of general information found in books or on the Internet very risky. In addition, the words used in the law tend to have very specific interpretations and often have different meanings than when used in regular conversation. So it is also very easy for the non-professional to misunderstand legal documents. Finally, the consequences of making legal mistakes can be devastating for any business.
My brother owns a business. Why not use his policies as a template?
Different size companies and companies in different lines of business may need to comply with different statutes — something a non-lawyer might easily miss. A 28-employee firm, for example, would not have to comply with provisions of the Family Leave Act although a 51-employee company would. A dental or medical practice would face different compliance requirements -- because of the controlled substances used -- than would, say, a printer. For the dentist or physician, noncompliance could constitute an OSHA violation and result in a large fine.
What difference does it make whether my employment attorney is a "people person"?
First and foremost, the only reason to hire an attorney is to represent your interests and help you succeed. That said, there is much more to employment law than just applying a particular paragraph in the law to a specific situation. Almost every employment decision, including the decision to do nothing, carries significant risks -- both legal and non-legal. An attorney sensitive to both business and people issues will ask questions that can help protect you from these wider risks. Terminations are a good example. Discrimination claims or unemployment benefits could potentially come into play. But another factor to consider is the message the termination sends to other employees. You'll want to manage that message, not just the legal consequences of the termination itself. How you convey other decisions to your staff is also important, such as changes in hours worked.
If I'm a small or mid-size business what size law practice should I retain?
A smaller law practice may be more focused on the issues faced by businesses of your size. Your work is more likely to be handled by a senior attorney directly rather than by a junior associate or paralegal. As independent businesses themselves, these law firms are also more sensitive to your needs and are more apt to speak your language. Less time will be spent on process issues -- such as bringing colleagues up to speed -- and more time devoted to the case itself. Smaller law firms also tend to be among the local community's business leaders -- as are its clients. So consider the firm's standing in the community as well as its size.