When to call your outside attorney, and when to handle it yourself.

Position:Nuts & Bolts

Say your HR department just received a subpoena for the employment records of an employee. How should you respond? Maybe your company doesn't have a general counsel or even have an HR office--it's just you! What do you do?

Many day-to-day HR issues can be handled without consulting an attorney--if you have a sufficient level of knowledge or experience. That said, there are some situations where contact with an outside employment attorney is practically a must.

Here's how to respond to some common situations:

Summons and complaint

If you receive a letter from an employee that threatens a lawsuit over a recent employment decision, seek advice right away from your outside attorney.

The same holds true with a summons and complaint, as the courts give you a relatively short period of time to make your company's initial defensive responses to a lawsuit. Failing to respond to a lawsuit on time can result in losing the lawsuit before you even offer your first defense in court.

Don't wait for trouble before you contact an attorney. It's helpful to already have an established relationship. It makes it easier to get up to speed on your company and the issues, saving time and money.


In most situations, a subpoena signed by an attorney is considered to be a court-sanctioned, legally valid order to produce information or records. Your company can be taken to court and ordered to respond if you delay or refuse to respond.

But unless the subpoena is sent as part of a lawsuit in which you or your company is a party, it's unlikely that you need to take a strong defensive position--or call your attorney.

For example, when a subpoena requests employment records about an employee who, himself, is involved in litigation--say a child-support dispute or divorce...

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