5 Part Series: The Missing Piece, Part 4

5 Part Series: The Missing Piece, Part 4

Part 4: A Legal Problem Strikes an Unprepared Employee

To recap the previous parts of the Missing Piece Series, we introduced a previously undiscussed piece of employee and financial wellness: employee stress directly affected by personal legal crises and emergencies. Legal matters create four major challenges that cause employees to seriously misunderstand the legal system and the associated emotional and stress. The first major challenge is the stress caused by the legal problem itself, followed by the high and unexpected cost of legal help. In this part of the Missing Piece Series, we will examine the struggles employees when they are unprepared for a legal problem.

One of the most misunderstood problems that causes substantial amounts of stress, absenteeism and increased healthcare costs for an employee is the process one must go through when a legal emergency first strikes.

The primary problem for an employee is not having an established relationship with an attorney when a legal problem arises. Unlike an existing relationship with a doctor when sickness strikes, most employees may not have an attorney to call upon when a legal crisis strikes. The problem is exacerbated if an employee thinks he has an attorney that can handle the case, when in fact he does not.

Employees with legal problems are largely on their own to find the right lawyer. Upon being served with a lawsuit, an employee must scramble to find an attorney who can handle the case. Lawyers that advertise on TV and billboards generally only handle a certain type of case and cannot help, and this oftentimes is the only attorney an employee knows to call.1

The “Race” Against the Clock – Time Deadlines in Court Cases Create Tremendous Pressure to Find an Attorney Quickly

This race against the filing clock takes shape every day for thousands of employees embroiled in lawsuits and following a predictable chain of events:

  1. An employee receives the Summons and Complaint/Petition with the requisite days to respond — or default.
  2. The employee calls referred attorneys.
  3. The employee takes off of work for scheduled appointments, only to find that the attorneys are not the right attorney, generally based on experience, disposition or pricing.
  4. The employee then combs the Yellow Pages or searches online, making call after call to attorneys and chasing dead ends.
  5. Days turn into weeks.
  6. The employee misses several days of work for more attorney visits, which yield nothing except more possible referrals.  
  7. Default is at risk.
  8. The employee becomes desperate.
  9. In addition to time off for attorney visits and consultations, the employee sees a physician or psychologist due to heightened lawsuit-related anxiety, fear, depression and lack of legal assistance.

Whenever a lawsuit is filed, there is generally a 20- to 30-day mandatory deadline to respond to the lawsuit filing, depending upon the state in which the lawsuit is filed. Under the pressure of the 20-30 days mandatory deadline, an employee must quickly get leads for attorneys. After identifying several lawyers for potential representation, an employee must, through a rudimentary interview process, attempt to visit each attorney, discuss fees and choose legal counsel, based on very limited information, to handle the case. It is estimated that an employee must take off of work and make at least four visits to different attorneys’ offices to find one that can take the case.2 And getting appointments can easily take up the majority of the 30-day time limit waiting for the attorney to respond with an appointment.

It is true that lawyer advertising has made it easier to find an attorney. However, there is still a problem in finding the right attorney for specific needs. If a lawyer is inexperienced, incompetent or lacks the willingness or ability to communicate effectively, the employee-participant will not be satisfied with the lawyer's service. In order to find the best attorney for each legal matter, an employee needs more than a list of names of attorneys.3

Certain legal cases, such as personal injury or wills and probates, have many attorneys advertising their services. However, the vast majority of cases facing employees are not cases in those areas, leaving employees to feel as if attorney access is nonexistent for a legal matter with an immediate deadline.

Consumer dissatisfaction with lawyers has become a major problem. A survey taken in 1995 by Consumer's Union revealed that out of 30,000 respondents, one-third were not well-satisfied with the quality of their attorneys’ services, citing key attorney shortfalls:

  • failing to keep clients informed on the progress of their cases,
  • failing to protect clients’ interests,
  • failing to resolve cases in a timely manner, and
  • charging unreasonable fees.

This widespread dissatisfaction is linked to the lack of knowledge by consumers on how to find attorneys experienced with the types of problems they are facing, as well as knowing what questions to ask a lawyer. The results of a 1,000-person survey reported in the Florida Bar Journal revealed that nearly one-half of those surveyed said it was hard to find a good lawyer, and more than a quarter of respondents said they didn’t know how to find a lawyer. It is remarkable that 80% of respondents said they wished there was a source for information on lawyers' experience and credentials.4

Additionally, many employees believe they know attorneys that can help them if a legal matter arises. Many employees have family members or in-laws that are attorneys or have friends or colleagues that have used an attorney in the past. While they believe they could call these attorneys if they ever had a legal problem, reality sets in with deadlines looming to respond to a petition or face default, when employees learn for the first time that those attorneys may not be a good fit for a range of reasons:

  • the fees are too high and unaffordable for the employee,
  • the lawyer’s specialty is not aligned with the employee’s needs, or
  • the lawyer is not taking new cases.

Widespread Misunderstanding of Retainer Fees

This is often an endless scenario and usually results in an employee having to settle for any attorney who would respond to them and take their case at what appears to be a reasonable fee called a retainer fee. Retainer fees can be confusing to employees and cause great amounts of stress when they learn the nature of these fees. Specifically, there are usually two (2) major misconceptions with retainer fees:

  1. Traditionally, when hiring a lawyer, the retainer fee must be paid upfront and can range from several thousand dollars to as much as $10,000 and upward before an attorney will begin working on the case. An employee is not prepared to pay this amount and may tap into savings or retirement accounts or max out credit cards to pay these unexpected fees.

“It is vital for workers to do all they can to help avoid tapping into their retirement savings.”5

Catherine Collinson, President Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies

This problem may be the largest part of the employee stress equation and also the most difficult to understand.

  1. The second problem that is not apparent to an employee hiring an attorney for the first time, is that many attorneys quote a low upfront retainer fee to get the case in the door,” followed by higher fees that have to be paid sooner than those quoted by other attorneys with larger retainer fees.  Employees who end up paying the low retainer fee often do not understand that more fees will be required to be paid as the litigation progresses and that retainer fees are not the “one and only fee.”  This pressure to come up with more money “unexpectedly” creates an enormous amount of pressure on the employee and distrust of the employee’s attorney.

Left unchecked, legal and financial problems will inevitably thrust employees into the legal system in some form. And as we will see, workers are largely unprepared when they are thrust into America’s legal system.

Let’s go back to our issue of one morning an employee is served with divorce papers not anticipating being embroiled in a lawsuit for the next two years. Upon being served, questions abound for that employee: Who will help me? Who will represent me? How much will it cost? Where will I live, and how much is the rent? How can I see my children? All types of significant life issues are visited in almost every divorce as the reality sets in that the marriage will not continue. The levels of stress may skyrocket, depending on the employee’s character composition and the preparedness for this life event.

An employee’s emotional state is a critical component during legal problems like divorce. If the employee is not able to let go of negative emotions and be logical, it will be impossible for the employee to negotiate financial issues effectively. The same applies if the employee’s spouse is unstable, in which case the employee will need to consult with a psychologist help understand irrational behaviors.6

How Does an Employee Search for an Attorney?  - A Typical Search for an Attorney

Not surprisingly, most people ask a friend for an attorney referral. Even in the online and social information age, people still rely on their friends, as well as other people they trust.7

But why don’t more employees know lawyers who can help them? Finding an attorney seems like it would be easy, given all of the attorney advertising, the billboards and the access to advice. Everywhere we turn today, there is a commercial or web site that promoting legal services. When the United States handed down its decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which struck down state laws prohibiting lawyers from advertising as an unconstitutional interference with free speech, it was widely thought that it would then be easier for individuals to find an attorney. This belief was based on the premise that since lawyers were allowed to compete in the same way as other businesses, it would be easier to meet consumers’ needs for legal representation and legal costs would go down.

But fears associated with attorney selection are not only monetary. The effects of losing the underlying case can be devastating - an employee may lose custody of their child, spouses may be hiding resources to increase child support income, credit scores may be preventing re-financing and mortgage problems, and an automobile repossession may prevent an employee from getting to work on time or at all. Thousands more examples like these are causing substantial amounts of employee stress.8

The challenge of not knowing where to find the right attorney is a major factor of employee stress when facing legal matters. In the final part of the Missing Part Series, we will discuss the fourth challenge employees face when facing a legal matter: navigating the American Legal System.


1 “Public Perceptions of Lawyers Consumer Research Findings,” American Bar Association Study, 2002.

2 Legal Access Plans, L.L.C., 2012 Internal Study.

3 eNotes, “How to find an attorney”. Source: Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, ©2003 Gale Cengage.

4 Id.            

5 “Transamerica Study Illuminates Severe Impact of Unemployment on Displaced Workers’ Retirement Outlook,” 2011, Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies®.

6 “What To Expect From an Angry Ex-Spouse During Divorce Settlement Negotiations,” By Cathy Meyer, About.com.

7 “How Do People Find and Hire Attorneys?” By Gyi Tsakalakis on April 30, 2013, http://lawyernomics.avvo.com/legal-marketing-2/how-do-people-find-hire-a...

8 American Psychological Association Practice Organization. (2010), “Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program Fact Sheet: By the Numbers,” Retrieved from http://www.phwa.org/dl/2010phwp_fact_sheet.pdfd.


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