How to retain an employment lawyer and when

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One concern is that hiring a lawyer might be seen as an aggressive move by employers, which could work against the individual and result in a smaller payout. As Nicola Horlick, City legend and chief executive of Bramdean Asset Management, put it at the LBS Women in Business Conference last month, "If you're someone who pursues things through the courts, it doesn't look great on a CV."

This perception has to be balanced against the need to know all your rights if you are to negotiate a fair exit from your job. Below we give our suggestions on how and when to hire an employment lawyer.

When do you need a lawyer?

About the only time you are legally obliged to consult an employment lawyer is before signing a compromise agreement with your employer. These agreements are increasingly common as part of a severance package. Employers will often pay an employee's legal costs and may suggest firms to use, although many employees prefer to choose their own firms.

When else might you want one?

  • Before you sign a contract of employment for a new job. Show the contract to a lawyer who can advise you what the small print means and whether the terms are in line with industry norms.
  • You think you are being discriminated against for reasons of gender, race, religion, disability, age, or sexual orientation. This is a complex area and it's a good idea to speak to a lawyer who specialises in this field.
  • You are being made redundant and you smell a rat. If your employer is trying to get rid of you under the guise of redundancy, it may be worth consulting a lawyer. If the real reason is discriminatory or unfair in some other way, you could be entitled to compensation that is higher than the redundancy being offered.
  • You are being dismissed or are under threat of dismissal. You may or may not have a claim against your employer for unfair treatment, but a lawyer will help ensure that your employer meets its legal obligations or pays compensation instead.
  • Your bonus is lower than that of colleagues or a promised bonus hasn't materialised.
  • A general sense that something is amiss, especially a change in attitude from your boss. The writing is usually on the wall for a while before someone is unfairly dismissed. Consulting a lawyer early on can prepare you better and help you get a better severance package.
  • Your company is being taken over or merged with another - and new employment contracts are being issued. It's worth consulting a lawyer who will advise you, for example, about pension issues and share options, and make sure your rights are properly protected.
  • Your own company issues new contracts of employment to all employees. You could be signing up to changed terms and conditions that make termination easier, for example.

How to find a lawyer

  • Word of mouth - by far the best way to start. Give most weight to recommendations made by people who have actually used the lawyer in question.
  • Legal 500 and Chambers - these are directories which rate law firms on an annual basis by specialism. Both have very user-friendly websites that allow free access to search facilities with helpful commentaries about firms and partners.
  • The Law Society - this is the professional body of lawyers. Its website allows you to search for lawyers by specialism and geographical area. The search is factual only without the additional commentary provided by the directories above.

Some useful checks and questions before choosing your lawyer

  • What do Chambers and/or Legal 500 have to say about the firms (if anything)?
  • Are the firm's lawyers members of the Employment Law Association?
  • What experience does the firm have in the area you need and with what type of opponents? Beware of choosing a firm that has only opposed small companies if you are up against an international bank.
  • What is the experience of the person who will be dealing with your case?
  • Does the firm specialise in dealing with employees only, employers only or both? Large firms usually specialise heavily one way or the other. Smaller firms may do both. Some people prefer employee-only firms, others like the idea of a firm that has experience of both sides.
  • What are their fees? A surprising number of people forget to ask about this! Most firms will charge an hourly rate. Some will do employment work on a no-win-no-fee basis, charging you a percentage of your winnings. For contract work, some firms will charge an hourly rate, while others may offer a flat rate package for looking over an employment contract.
  • How did the firm deal with your initial inquiry? Do you have good instincts about the person who will be handling your case? Do you feel comfortable talking to them about very sensitive matters? Don't underestimate the importance of this, especially if you are thinking of going to an employment tribunal. You'll be off to a bad start if you don't get on well personally with your representative.

What the lawyers say

"You have got to be convinced that the individual you are instructing has an understanding of what it's like to be in your shoes and experience of acting for others in that position. On a practical level, if you have legal protection on your domestic insurance, pick a lawyer who knows how to use that."

- Makbool Javaid, employment partner at DLA Piper, a large international firm

"Consult a lawyer early in any process. If you have advice on the potential value of your rights, you can negotiate with confidence. Equally, you don't want an inflated sense of your claim."

- Roger Tynan, employment partner at Campbell Hooper, a smaller firm

"When people have a problem at work, the first thing I ask is, 'Do you want to stay or leave?' If they want to stay, I would advise them to use internal procedures. Eight out of ten people want to leave, so I would talk to HR in the first instance and commence without prejudice negotiations. Lots of redundancies, for example, are not real. It's disciplinary in disguise. If it's really something else, then it's my job to get the client more money."

- Philip Landau, partner Landau Zeffert Weir, a no-win-no-fee lawyer

What clients say

"Always tick the box for legal cover on your domestic insurance policy. It helps level the playing field if you're up against a big bank with deep pockets."

"Don't underestimate the emotional strain of suing your employer."

"Make sure your lawyer is specialised in the particular area of employment law you need. There's no point hiring a discrimination specialist to negotiate your pension rights."

What is your experience of employment lawyers? Email Hashi Syedain on hsyedain@efinancialcareers.com

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