Because you meet with an attorney to discuss a case does not obligate you to hire him/her. The attorney may identify claims that you did not know existed and determine you are owed more than you believe to be the case. Also, the chances of a prompt resolution may be increased by hiring an attorney.
The DOL is short staffed, and their cases get delayed. Also, it is much easier to communicate with a private attorney. Your own attorney gives you much more attention.
Generally speaking you will get more if you hire a private attorney and you will get it quicker. The reason you will get more is because the Department of Labor attorneys DO NOT represent you. If there is a violation they will attempt to settle the case between you and your former employer. This normally results in a lower return then you could get in private litigation. The reason that you will get a return quicker is because a private attorney does not work for a government agency that has been downsized at the same time that there caseload has increased. In other words, you case will be handled by someone who has the resources to get you the damages you deserve. The DOL is understaffed and underfunded for the number of cases that they have to deal with in this area. Finally, the 30% contingency fee for an attorney is not correct. Usually in a successful litigation like this you will receive your lost wages plus penalty AND your attorney's fees for litigating the matter. In other words, the 30% would not necessarily be "taken off the top."
I would advise you to speak to an attorney in your area--since most, including my office offer a free initial consultation, so you have nothing to lose.
No attorney client relationship has been created by this answer.
You can certainly represent yourself at the New York Department of Labor, however, note that for the DOL to handle your claim for unpaid wages, you must not make above a certain minimum, currently at $900/week or less. An experienced New York Unpaid Wages Attorney can be extremely important to have on your side as he or she will help not only help you understand the law, but also your rights (and in certain cases, obligations) which are not readily clear. More importantly, once the dispute starts, he or she will be able to guide you through the DOL and court procedure so your time and efforts are spent in the most efficient manner.
The information provided above is for general purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Seek competent legal representation, because the facts of each case are different.