Practice Insights: Employment Law
Veteran employment attorney Erica Clarke shares her insights into the practice of employment law in an exclusive interview.
Q. What is employment law?
A. Employment law involves employment discrimination litigation, including claims of race, sex, age, and disability discrimination. In my practice, I defend employers in litigation before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and in state and federal court proceedings. Other types of employment litigation include wage and hour cases, cases involving misappropriation of trade secrets, and suits to enforce Non-Competition Agreements.
Another large component of an employment law practice includes counseling employers in all aspects of the employment relationship, from hiring through termination. In that respect, I advise employers on the following issues:
- Workplace harassment
- Disability accommodation
- Family & Medical Leave Act compliance
- Employee handbooks
- Human resource policies and practices
- Wage and hour issues
- Workplace investigations
- Drug and alcohol testing
- Disciplinary action and termination
- Reductions in force
- Employment-at-will/wrongful discharge
- Employment agreements
- Restrictive covenants and confidentiality agreements
- Severance agreements
- Waivers and releases
- Unemployment compensation claims
Q. What do you like about practicing in this area of law?
A. Employment law is never dull. Discrimination and harassment claims typically involve complex relationships between people in the workplace and, therefore, have a very human component that is often lacking in other types of litigation.
The issues that I deal with from day to day are constantly changing, and the law is ever evolving in this area.
I also like that 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 been filed and it must be defended. By counseling human resources professionals at the time that issues arise, and guiding them through steps to handle a particular problem, litigation is often avoided.
Q. What are the challenges of practicing employment law?
A. The “alphabet soup” of employment laws – FMLA, ADA, ADEA, FLSA, OSHA, COBRA, etc. – is quite complex. There are many pitfalls for the unwary employer.
In addition, employment litigation, by its nature, is often very contentious because employers can’t help but take allegations of harassment or discrimination personally. It is 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.
Q. Describe a typical day in your practice area.
A. In a typical day, I might answer an employer’s questions on 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.
Q. Are employment opportunities in this field growing?
A. Yes. Not only do most litigation firms have some employment law component to their practice, 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.
Q. What skills are needed to practice in the area of employment law?
A. People skills. An ability to establish and maintain a relationship of trust and confidence with your clients. Human resource professionals and other company managers are often faced with very difficult decisions and need to know that they have a competent advisor that 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.
Q. How can someone break into this field?
A. Many employment lawyers have backgrounds in human resources, and pursue a legal profession as a second career. For law students, I would suggest taking an employment law course and see if you find it interesting. If so, you can target firms with an employment law practice in your job search.