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What Motivates an Employee’s Lawyer?

by Jeff DeGraffenreid

Recently, I met a plaintiff’s lawyer during a particularly expansive mediation. He was on the opposing side, and after we were through, I had the chance to sit down with him over a beer and pick his brain. I’d gone in with the notion that he was “in it for the money.” I quickly found out that he had more skin in the game than I thought.

He’d been fired from a job 20 years ago when he thought he was the ideal employee — always on time, cheerful, and dedicated. After some money came up missing, the company gave everyone a polygraph test and then summarily fired him (and several others) without bothering to give a reason. Today, he views his litigation practice as a mission to right the wrong he experienced.

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He was preparing to tell me about his first experience as a fired employee looking for a lawyer, and he was really getting animated.

“I’m mad about this,” he said, “real mad. So I call a lawyer and tell him what happened. ‘Hmmm,’ the lawyer says. Sounds like maybe your boss was just trying to find out who took the money when he gave everyone the polygraph test. Are you a minority? No. You don’t sound female. Are you over 40? No. Well, gosh, we do have employment at will here in Kansas, [blah, blah, blah]. Doesn’t sound to me like you have a case.

“Now, I’ve gotta tell you, Jeff, this didn’t seem right to me. Should a good employee, who did nothing wrong, have his personal life pried into, be made to feel like a creep, and then get fired for ‘no reason’? Maybe you think that’s OK, but I didn’t then, and I don’t now.

“So I went to law school. I learned about all this alphabet soup of employment laws. And now, when some angry, 19-year-old kid calls me for advice because he just got fired for no reason, I know how he feels . . . and I know how to help him. I get a little piece of that smug boss of mine every time I get a jury verdict or settle a case. The money is nice, but that feeling is better.”

I knew he had a point. I knew from several years of medical malpractice work that a poor bedside manner got doctors in trouble more often than a missed diagnosis. I knew from years of helping employers solve problems that the way you handle a discharge — and the evaluations leading up to a discharge — is incredibly important.

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There’s great value in treating folks, including those being discharged, with dignity and respect. And there’s no better way to turn a former employee into a current litigant than to go out of your way to make him feel less than human when he involuntarily leaves the company. A case we just settled is a perfect example.

The lawyer’s client, Joe, had been treated poorly on his way out the door. He came back from lunch to find his personal items boxed up, his computer shut down and inaccessible, and no explanation for why he was being fired after 16 years — actually, 16 years and 223 days, as Joe pointed out several times at the mediation — of loyal service. As far as he was concerned, he was doing an acceptable job, and his appraisals seemed to confirm that.

The company thought it was doing the right thing by offering him three months’ severance — which isn’t anything to sneeze at — but that wasn’t what Joe had in mind when he left the company. He didn’t think three months was adequate given his years of service, but frankly, given the way the termination happened, I don’t think it would have mattered if the company had doubled or even tripled the original offer.

Joe was angry. He is older than 40 and his replacement is a 28-year-old woman. And Joe called the right lawyer. Case closed — or in this case, case settled.

I thought I probably knew the answer to my next question, but what I learned surprised me. And it might surprise you, too.

“So tell me how you knew you had a good case here,” I asked.

“Jeez,” he laughed, “how long do you have?”