Employment law involves discrimination litigation, including claims of race, sex, age, and disability bias. Other types of employment litigation include wage and hour cases, cases involving misappropriation of trade secrets, and suits to enforce non-competition agreements.
A large component of an employment law practice includes counseling employers in all aspects of the employment relationship, from hiring through termination. This can include workplace harassment, disability accommodation, and the Family & Medical Leave Act compliance. Employers might also need guidance in human resource policies and practices, wage and hour issues, and employment-at-will/wrongful discharge matters.
Veteran employment attorney Erica Clarke shares her insights into the practice of employment law in an exclusive interview.
What Do You Like About Practicing in This Area of Law?
"Employment law is never dull," Clarke said "Discrimination and harassment claims typically involve complex relationships between people in the workplace. They, therefore, have a very human component that's often lacking in other types of litigation. The issues are constantly changing, and the law is ever evolving in this area.
"Much of an employment law practice involves being proactive. Much of my time is spent advising employers on how to reduce or eliminate the risk of litigation. In other areas of litigation, the attorney will get a call that a lawsuit has already been filed and it must be defended. But litigation can often be avoided in employment law through counseling human resources professionals at the time issues arise, and guiding them through steps to handle a particular problem."
What Are the Challenges of Practicing Employment Law?
"The alphabet soup of employment laws—FMLA, ADA, ADEA, FLSA, OSHA, and COBRA—is quite complex. Many pitfalls exist for the unwary employer.
"By its nature, employment litigation is often very contentious because employers can’t help but take allegations of harassment or discrimination personally," Clarke explained. "It's often difficult to get the employer to step back and look at the litigation from a business perspective. The emotional aspect of these claims and the employer’s desire to be vindicated can sometimes be a roadblock to bringing the parties to an amicable resolution."
Describe a Typical Day in This Practice Area
"I might answer an employer’s questions as to how to handle an employee discipline or discharge issue, advise an employer on the enforcement of a non-compete agreement, appear in federal court in a contentious case involving sexual harassment, and draft a severance agreement for a departing executive."
Are Employment Opportunities in This Field Growing?
"Not only do most litigation firms have some employment law component to their practice, but there are many regional and national law firms that specialize only in employment law. In addition, many large corporations have an in-house staff of employment attorneys."
What Skills Are Necessary to Practice in This Area of Law?
"People skills are very important—an ability to establish and maintain a relationship of trust and confidence with your clients," Clarke said. "Human resource professionals and other company managers are often faced with very difficult decisions and they need to know that they have a competent advisor they can rely on to guide them through their legal obligations. Also, writing skills are very important, as is keeping up-to-date on the latest developments in the law."
How Can Someone Break into This Field?
"Many employment lawyers have backgrounds in human resources and they pursue a legal profession as a second career. Law students might want to take an employment law course to see if they find it interesting. If so, they can target firms with an employment law practice in their job searches."
Some Additional Insights
This can be an unpredictable and very delicate area of law. A good many employment cases end up in the courts with decisions left in the hands of juries—numerous individuals from differing backgrounds and with firm opinions. Jury verdicts can make sense...but sometimes they seem to come out of left field. This can be a tough area of law for those who don't like surprises.
You'll also be dealing with some delicate subject matter, with egos, and perhaps with desperation. Employers might have spent a lifetime building their businesses only to have a potential employment claim derail years or even decades of hard work. Employees might desperately need jobs they can no longer hold because of legal abuses.
But if you have nerves of steel and feel strongly about helping others, this could be your niche.