Other workplace problems that arise might concern disability or leave issues. Wage-and-hour matters, which typically involve disputes about overtime work, are also increasingly prominent and are sometimes fairly complex if, for example, employees feel that their reclassification as supervisors is just a ploy to exempt the company from paying extra money for extra hours, according to Berke-Weiss.
“There’s been no slowdown in divorces.”
Privacy issues also come into play, usually because employees are unaware of how little privacy they have. “Employees don’t necessarily understand that the desk and the equipment belong to the employer,” Berke-Weiss says. That can be problematic in a variety of situations. For example, if you’re leaving the company for another job, you may have kept all sorts of personal information on your office computer’s hard drive. Those residues of personal life and personal opinion actually belong to the employer.
Separating from your employer, whether voluntarily or not, may involve additionally vexing legal concerns, not the least of which are trade secrets—which, quite understandably, employers will fight hard to protect. Fights can also break out over ownership of customer lists, Berke-Weiss notes. If you’ve been canned and offered severance and a separation agreement, you might want to have a lawyer look at the document before you sign it. Taking the short money now may disserve you and your family in the long run.
The most amicable conclusion to a job—like retirement—deserves full legal review as well. There are frequent pension-related problems that arise both during employment and afterward, advises Julian Birnbaum, a partner at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard in New York City. A pension plan itself might be in jeopardy, or there may be some technical problems in how they’re set up or paid off. Pension plans are sometimes modified and “people want to make sure they are not losing benefits or being shortchanged in a conversion,” Birnbaum says. A labor and employment lawyer can decipher those changes.
Other lawyers focus on protecting their clients when their lives have gone dreadfully wrong. Bad things happen—a car accident, a physician who had a few martinis before surgery, a medication that causes deleterious health effects. The victims want justice and they want money.
“If something happened to them that was someone else’s fault and they got hurt, the first step is to ask a lawyer to determine whether there is a case,” says Walter Alton Jr. of Walter G. Alton, Jr. & Associates.
“The public has become more litigious because they are more aware,” Alton says. Paradoxically, people are now more cynical as a result of media coverage of high jury awards to plaintiffs who look just like them. Yet the vast majority of cases settle for relatively small figures early on, but press coverage of exceedingly generous awards skews perceptions. “That’s the kind of publicity that prejudices jurors,” Alton says.
You don’t want to leave things to chance.
Still, personal injury suits are fights that Alton relishes. “Helping injured people and their families is the best part of my job,” Alton says. “You can make a difference in their lives,” he says. “You can’t bring them back to the way they were, but you can correct a wrong to some degree,” Alton notes.
And that, after all, is what the adversarial system is supposed to do.