Labor and employment law is a rapidly evolving and highly contested area of law, so much so that the U.S. Supreme Court routinely issues groundbreaking rulings related to this field.
Because the workplace is an environment where disputes often occur and where questions about fairness loom large, labor and employment lawsuits are extremely common. The result of a single case can have enormous implications not only for those involved whose livelihoods may be at stake, but also for society at large since court rulings can establish legal precedents that govern how employers and employees interact.
What Is Labor and Employment Law?
The field of labor and employment law covers nearly every disagreement that may arise between business owners, managers and subordinates, including allegations of theft. This legal specialty defines the rights and responsibilities of workers, their bosses and company owners, and it sets the limits for what each party is permitted to do in the workplace.
This expansive legal discipline is divided into two major segments: labor law, which focuses on collective bargaining and unions, and employment law, which concentrates on the relationship between a worker and his or her supervisors.
“It’s an all-encompassing area of law with something that appeals to everyone,” Michelle Murtha, a trial lawyer who handles employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases in New York, wrote in an email. “You can work on either side of the fence as well, representing either plaintiffs or corporate defendants.”
In addition to regulating the relationship between a company and its workforce, this legal discipline also sets parameters for hiring and recruitment practices since discriminating against job candidates on the basis of certain qualities – such as race, gender or religion – is forbidden.
Why Someone Might Choose This Field
Aspiring attorneys who are passionate about ensuring equality of opportunity for marginalized populations may enjoy a career as a labor or employment lawyer, experts on this field say.
When the legal rights of workers are violated by their employers, plaintiff’s-side employment attorneys can provide legal assistance to workers who have been wronged, explains Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the National Employment Lawyers Association, commonly known as NELA. “Vindicating those rights on the ground and making sure that they are not just words on a piece of paper but actually have teeth – that has to be done day-in and day-out in the courts,” Mittman says.
Deborah Karpatkin, a NELA board member who regularly represents workers in employment law cases, emphasizes that the quality of a person’s work environment has an enormous impact on that individual’s overall quality of life. “Work is something that we all do, and most of us have to work,” says Karpatkin, an adjunct professor at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in New York. “We spend most of our waking hours working. Work gives dignity to our lives, in addition to paying our bills.”
One of the benefits of concentrating on labor and employment law as an attorney is that it involves addressing meaningful controversies, Karpatkin says. “It gives you a chance to make a difference for people on something that’s really important to them.”
Corporate-aligned or management-side labor and employment lawyers also describe their work as interesting and fulfilling, noting that there are times when workers attempt to take advantage of employers.
“Neither side is always right,” says Harvey Linder, a partner at the Culhane Meadows law firm. “Employees are wrong or can be wrong, and employers are wrong or can be wrong. Neither one has a monopoly on the truth. And, if you are able to run through that battlefield (and) navigate through those waters, then this is a place for you, because if you settle something, you can feel good.”
Both plaintiff and defense attorneys in labor and employment law suggest that the ongoing, dramatic transformation of this type of law makes it an exciting and fascinating area of legal practice.
Job Outlook for Labor and Employment Attorneys
There is significant demand for labor and employment attorneys currently for a variety of reasons, including the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter social movements, says Mark Kluger, co-founder of the Kluger Healey law firm. “Employment law has really been a focus for a lot of employers in need of guidance through issues like sexual harassment and diversity and inclusion. That is, and has always been, at the heart of employment law.”
Kluger notes that the pandemic resulted in a series of employment and labor law dilemmas, including legal issues surrounding family or medical leave, furloughs, reductions of staff hours, remote employment, terminations and underlying health conditions that make certain workers highly susceptible to dying from COVID-19.
Federal legislation in response to the pandemic imposed certain rules regarding how employers could treat their employees during the pandemic, which also created work for attorneys in this area, he says. There are also legal debates surrounding whether employers may require employees to get vaccinated against coronavirus. Kluger says the past year has been the busiest in his decades-long career.
Skills and Knowledge Needed in Labor and Employment Law
An understanding of human psychology and social interactions is essential for a job as a labor or employment lawyer, since disputes between corporate owners, managers and their underlings are often highly emotional and volatile, according to experts on the field. An aptitude for and an interest in negotiation is also a must for this profession, so anyone who intends to enter this field should strongly consider taking a negotiation course in law school if it is available, experts suggest.
Future labor and employment lawyers should consider enrolling in at least one elective course that focuses on this area of law and should consider taking a class in civil rights law, which is closely connected to the practice of labor and employment law, some experts say.
Aspiring labor and employment attorneys should also look into doing an internship or externship during law school with a labor-related government agency such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, experts suggest.
“Schools with employment law clinics can give an extremely helpful introduction to handling employment matters, which will stand out on a resume both for the experience and the commitment to the area of law,” Joyce Smithey, the founding partner of Smithey Law Group in Maryland, wrote in an email.
Kluger, an employment lawyer who typically represents employers, suggests that problem-solving abilities are necessary in order to excel as a labor and employment attorney.
“Most lawyers, particularly those who are involved in litigation, come in after the disaster has occurred,” he says. “So, in employment law, we have the rare opportunity to prevent disasters without litigation, and in the end, it creates a healthier work environment for everybody.”
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