Labor and Employment Law
This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Labor & Employment Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.
What is Labor & Employment Law?
What is labor and employment law? Essentially, it covers anything to do with an employee-employer relationship, whether that arises from the common law, legislative law, or regulations. It covers workplace safety, categories of employment, rights and responsibilities of each party, and includes law and regulations at the local, state, national, and sometimes international levels as the marketplace expands globally. This broad category includes employees, employers, contractors, unions, administrative agencies, and legislators. Federal law separates out workers into exempt, non-exempt, and independent contractors, which affects the employee-employer relationship. This guide addresses public interest labor and employment opportunities.
Pay, Benefits & Termination
Each state has wage laws that dictate how often, at a minimum, employees must be paid. Some of the employee classifications affect how an employee is treated and the protections and flexibility they are afforded by the law. Using these classifications, employers can offer different benefits to different classes of employees. Also based on these statuses and the jurisdiction, the methods and notice required to terminate individuals or mass layoffs is determined by state and federal law.
Both state and federal laws and regulations dictate basic safety requirements and safeguards. Various industries, such as transportation, energy, and construction, have additional safety requirements that may be enacted by legislatures, the federal and state safety agencies, or other federal or state agencies. Workplace injuries may have additional remedies under traditional tort law as well. Disability pay then is available for those employees injured on the job.
Unemployment & Disability Payments
Employees generally are entitled to unemployment benefits when they are terminated by an employer for anything less than for-cause. Many employers argue that the termination was for-cause, and lawyers step in to represent the employee in state administrative hearings. Depending on the state law, lawyers either represent employees in state agencies or private arbitration panels when disability claims are denied. Most states then allow for those decisions to be appealed to a state trial court.
Many specialized skilled employees still use collective bargaining to set various terms with employers on behalf of their members. Teachers, plumbers, and electricians are some of the best known employees that still belong to unions, but lawyers, carpenters, and custodial staff are also often unionized. In large cities, the construction industry unions still play a role in financing projects from time to time. This requires lawyers and negotiators on both sides, often negotiating multiple contracts for different kinds of skilled workers at the same employer.
Where can I practice Labor & Employment Law?
Lawyers working in labor and employment law can be found in government, unions, private and public corporations, non-profit organizations, and law firms.
Legal Aid / Legal Services
Legal services agencies sometimes devote a portion of their overall work to labor and employment issues, particularly providing public education.
The advantages of a legal services office are that you will be given immediate client contact and a great deal of responsibility; will have some level of supervision; will likely be afforded flexible working conditions; and will be in a supportive environment of colleagues with similar interests. The disadvantages are that you will not earn a lot of money; your position may be year-to-year depending on funding; your office space may be less than ideal; and the demand for services may overwhelm your capacity.
Unions employ lawyers both to represent the interest of the members at the bargaining table and in enforcing the bargaining agreement. Over individual member discipline issues, after the workplace remedies are exhausted, union lawyers might step in or have private outside counsel that handle taking the dispute into the courts. Larger unions may also offer legal representation on specific civil matters as a benefit for the members. This benefit can range from limited scope to full representation, and may be administered directly by attorneys working for the union or private attorneys contracted by the union.
Though individual cases are rarely handled by non-profit organizations, lawyers do work in developing policy at the state and national levels. Some advocacy organizations will also take on class-action lawsuits, often with the assistance of outside counsel, for large claims around environmental and toxic torts. These organizations will also sometimes take on specific discrimination cases to test the law, paving the interest of private attorneys who may be hesitant to take on cases when they generally would accept the case as fee-contingent.
Government agencies enforce various labor and safety regulations, as well as the administrative processes for unemployment, workplace safety, and in some states, wage theft. The federal government needs lawyers in agencies such as the Social Security Administration to represent the interests of the government and serve as administrative law judges. In many states, the hearing officer for unemployment claims is required to be a licensed attorney. Discrimination claims generally must be filed with an administrative agency first. Likewise, lawyers serving as legislative counsel may devote all or a portion of their time to these issues.
Due to the fee structure, most non-union employee administrative hearings and lawsuits are handled by private attorneys. The fee structures vary across the states, but civil rights and wrongful termination cases are generally handled on a fee-contingency basis, where the lawyer is paid a percentage of any settlement or court award. When successfully representing a client in an appeal of denial in a Social Security Disability case, the lawyer is paid a fee by the court.
Which personality traits make you well-suited for this?
Labor and employment law appeals to students who want to work directly with clients. Many lawyers who handle Social Security Disability cases cite internal curiosity as a great motivator, as these lawyers are constantly expanding their medical knowledge to represent their clients. If you enjoy researching and writing, working for a government agency that promulgates regulations related to wages, benefits, workplace safety, or discrimination, might be of interest to you. If you like a blend of research, writing, policy, and working in the political process, legislative counsel might be a good fit for you.
What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Labor & Employment Law?
Taking courses in administrative law, any courses in labor and employment law, and skills-based courses for both litigation and pre-trial skills will help any student interested in this area of law. Gaining experience in a law firm, government agency, or legislative body will expose you to the actual work, as well as provide you an entrée into the networking contacts. The American Bar Association has a large, active Section of Labor and Employment Law, which also sponsors a Law Student Trial Advocacy Competition and includes a Law Student Division Liaison in their Section Leadership. Many state and local bar associations also have Labor and Employment Law Committees or Sections, all of which provide opportunities to network with current attorneys while you sharpen your leadership skills. All of these will provide you with opportunities to strengthen your resume for the handful of fellowships and Honors programs in Labor and Employment Law.
The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:
- American Bar Association Section of Labor & Employment Law
- US Department of Labor Employment Law Guide
- Labor & Employment Law Career Guide, Harvard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising
- Employment/Labor Law, Georgetown Law Center Career Planning
- Are You Interested in a Career in Labor & Employment Law?, Darrious Baker for the American Bar Association Student Lawyer
- Labor & Employment Law: Career Path Introduction, Chicago-Kent College of Law Career Preparation
- National Employment Law Institute
Category: Explore Your Career Options
Tags: Practice Areas