If you've recently lost your job, you may be tightening your belt and counting your pennies, trying to figure out how to make ends meet until you find new work. In this situation, you probably aren't interested in paying any of your dwindling cash to a lawyer -- and often, this will be a smart decision. If, like so many employees these days, you were laid off due to the struggling economy, you probably won't have any trouble qualifying for unemployment benefits. The application process is relatively simple, and you can handle it online in most states. As long as you meet your state's eligibility requirements, you should start receiving benefits within a few weeks after you file, all without any help from a lawyer.
In some cases, however, it might make sense to hire a lawyer, even if money is tight.
When It Makes Sense to Handle Your Claim Yourself
It makes good sense to file your own unemployment claim if your situation is relatively straightforward. For most people, completing a claim form is a fairly simple process. These forms vary by state, but you will probably have to provide some basic information about yourself, your work history, and your reasons for being unemployed. Once you submit the form, the state unemployment agency may interview you, by phone or in person. The agency will also talk to your employer. Then, if you meet the eligibility requirements, the state will grant your claim and you'll start receiving benefits.
To find out your state's rules and procedures for filing a claim, contact its unemployment insurance agency; see State Unemployment Agencies for links to each state's agency.
When You Might Need a Lawyer
There are some situations when it makes sense to get some help from a lawyer with your unemployment case. Here are some examples:
- You have legal claims against your employer. If you believe your employer has violated your legal rights, you should consult with a lawyer to find out how strong your claims are. For example, you might believe that you were selected for layoff because of your race, or that your employer fired you in retaliation for reporting health and safety violations. In this situation, your unemployment claim might be just the first step in a lengthy legal process, one that could result in a significant financial award. If your lawyer believes you have a good case, he or she can help you file for unemployment, making sure to state the facts in the way most favorable to your case. The lawyer can also use the unemployment process to start assessing your employer's likely defenses and strategies.
- You were fired or quit your job. You will be eligible for benefits only if you are out of work through no fault of your own. If you quit your job voluntarily, without good cause (as your state defines it), you won't be eligible. You also won't qualify if you were fired for serious misconduct (again, as defined by your state). In most states, employees who quit or are fired must attend a hearing to determine their eligibility for benefits. In this situation, a lawyer can help you figure out the best way to complete your paperwork -- and present the facts at the hearing -- to show that you qualify for benefits. Of course, hiring a lawyer in this situation makes sense only if what you stand to gain in benefits exceeds what you will have to pay the lawyer.
- Your claim for benefits was improperly denied. If your unemployment claim is denied, you have the right to appeal. State procedures differ, but typically you will have to file a written appeal and attend a hearing, in person or by phone, to state why you think you are entitled to benefits. In this situation, having a lawyer to help you prepare the paperwork and help you at the hearing can make the difference between winning and losing your case. Again, however, it makes sense to hire a lawyer only if the benefits outweigh the cost. And, you should carefully consider whether you have a chance of winning: A lawyer can help you make a persuasive case, but can't change the facts. If you are clearly not eligible for benefits under your state's law, hiring a lawyer won't help.