Employment law encompasses the legal rights and responsibilities that arise out of the employer-employee relationship. It evolved from the more narrow practice of labor law, which traditionally dealt only with conflicts involving labor unions. Today, employers are held accountable to a complex system of federal and state laws regarding everything from hiring and firing to maternity leave and drug testing. Employment law attorneys play an important role by helping employers comply with these laws and by helping employees vindicate their workplace rights.
Employment law attorneys handle cases that involve allegations of employment discrimination, civil rights violations, breach of employment contracts and covenants not to compete, office libel, wrongful discharge, unfair labor practices, violations of employee privacy, union grievances, workers' compensation claims, and workplace harassment, among other issues that arise on the job. Some attorneys focus their practice on Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) matters due to the statute's complexity. Other employment law attorneys concentrate their practice on the transactional aspects of workplace relationships, counseling employers on ways to comply with employment laws and draft policies and contracts that are meant to prevent the need for litigation. "It can be a very, very diverse practice, which is what I enjoy," says Eric Barnum '94, who represents employers as a partner at Schiff Hardin in Atlanta, "It's exciting."
Employment law is a client-centered practice area. Attorneys in this field must dedicate a significant amount of time to counseling their clients and keeping them informed of developments in their cases. On any given day, they might also draft legal documents (such as letters, briefs, memoranda, and position papers), conduct discovery, respond to discovery requests, prepare for trial, appear in court or in front of an administrative agency, or participate in negotiations. Examples of administrative agencies before which employment law attorneys commonly appear are the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and state bureaus of employment services and workers' compensation. Arbitration and mediation are regularly used to resolve employment-related disputes, so employment law attorneys must also be comfortable participating in these forms of dispute resolution.
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
Successful employment law attorneys are good listeners who can get along with a wide variety of people and inspire confidence in their clients. They must also possess strong advocacy skills and be able to write well. Law students can hone these abilities by taking courses in labor and employment law, trial advocacy, administrative law, client counseling, and alternative dispute resolution; participating in one of McGeorge’s on-campus clinics; and working for a law firm or organization that handles employment law matters.
Skills often found in employment law attorneys:
Employers in this field place a premium on practical experience, and in many cases, experience with, and a demonstrated enthusiasm for, employment law can overcome an applicant's less-than-stellar academic credentials.
The majority of employment law attorneys work for law firms. Large and mid-size firms often have departments devoted to labor and employment law. Their clients are mostly employers. Solo practitioners and attorneys at boutique firms that specialize in employment law sometimes represent employers but more often represent employees. Many unions, businesses, government agencies (including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. Department of Labor, and state civil rights commissions), and non-profit organizations (including colleges, universities and hospitals) also employ attorneys who handle employment law matters.
Employment law attorneys usually represent exclusively employers, employees, or unions, although an employment law attorney may move from an employer-oriented practice to an employee-oriented practice over the span of his or her career (and vice versa).
Employment law can be an especially demanding practice due to clients' frequently high levels of stress, but employment law attorneys appreciate that their work involves interesting cases and opportunities to make a real difference for their clients. "I have the opportunity to advise my clients every day on how to create a workplace that is fair, that is passionate, and that provides ample opportunities," Mr. Barnum points out. "Most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and so many people define themselves by what they do. People are invested in their careers, so it's always an interesting story."