The modern employer-employee relationship was born in the 19th century, when huge numbers of people began to move to cities to take up waged labor. Labor laws and trade unions emerged to correct the imbalance of power between employers and employees, aiming to secure fairer working arrangements for employees.
Since then, the field has expanded to address the rights and responsibilities of employees, employers, and their representative organizations. It covers a range of issues such as wages, discrimination, union activity, pensions, unemployment compensation, workplace safety, and workers’ compensation.
This broad scope means that labor and employment lawyers are always in demand - a factor that draws many lawyers to the field.
“These issues don’t disappear in a tough economic climate,” says Michael L. Foreman of Penn State Law School. “Lawyers with this expertise are vital whether companies are growing or downsizing.”
But beyond job security, the field also represents an intellectually stimulating career path.
“The most fascinating thing about the field is the intermingling of social, political and legal issues with human issues and personal stories,” says Nuna Zekic of Tilburg Law School in The Netherlands.
“If you should choose to work for employees and trade unions, you will find that it is more of a vocation than a job,” says Keith Ewing, law professor at King's College London.
A lot of the work, says Ewing, involves “addressing problems of abuse of power in the workplace and helping people who are in difficulty...In any case, it will be an interesting career.”
Practitioners will have the opportunity to work on a range of different legal issues and with a variety of different clients, including individual employees, non-government organizations, trade unions, and corporations.
Labor lawyers can expect to advise on the negotiation of work agreements, the appraisal of corporate initiatives to determine whether they are lawful, the negotiation of settlement agreements in employment disputes and litigation in tribunals and courts. The work will involve complex legal issues while exposing practitioners to the whole gamut of people’s work experiences.
One side or the other?
Since most firms and organizations concern themselves with representing either employees or employers, practitioners will have to make a choice about whom they wish to represent. You will not, however, be bound by your initial choice.
Michael Foreman at Penn State is a good example. He started out working for a management-side law firm because, “honestly, that’s where most of the jobs are in employment and labor law.”
But once he got some experience, he decided that he wanted to be on the other side, and transferred over. Similarly, plaintiff attorneys may decide that they wish to do in-house advisory work for corporations, and off they go.
“In my opinion, exposure to both sides makes you a better attorney,” says Foreman. “My defense work has given me a far better understanding where the other side is coming from, and how best to respond.”
Back to school?
So, do you need a specialist LL.M. to launch your career in this field? Joellen Riley of Sydney Law School says that while most things can be learned on the job with good mentoring and supervision, there are a few reasons why students might consider doing a specialist LL.M.
First - and most obvious - is the fact that an LL.M. allows students to get on top of a large, complex, and ever-changing field of law. The LL.M. also gives students the benefit of sharing their practical experience in class, which helps to illuminate legal concepts and reach a sophisticated understanding of the different sides of a dispute.
But one of the most important benefits of an LL.M., says Riley, is that it allows students to look beyond the traditional labor and employment law model. The globalization of capital means that companies can now search the globe for the cheapest labor options, and this shift means that governments are under intense pressure to reduce labor standards or risk losing business and investment. On the other side, trade unions are losing their bargaining power, because employers can threaten to move jobs elsewhere.
In light of this shift, the traditional labor and employment law model cannot provide employees with the same kind of protection as in the past, and lawyers are looking to other areas of law to find protections for vulnerable workers, including corporate and commercial law, insolvency law, social security law, harassment and discrimination law, immigration law, and international human rights law.
Another practical benefit of postgraduate study, according to Michael Foreman, is that it allows students to become comfortable with the statistical concepts and tools that are essential to practice in this field.
“Statistical modelling underlies a lot of the analysis,” says Foreman, “and being able to understand what the data means is important.”
When a corporation intends to lay off workers, for example, statistical analyses might be used to determine whether there are hidden trends that may be interpreted as unlawful discrimination.
Similarly, plaintiff lawyers need to be able to look into how their client has been treated as an individual while using statistical modelling to assess whether there is discrimination on a more systemic basis.
The system of labor and employment law does not offer a final resolution of the tension between the rights of employees and those of employers, and the economic and legal landscape are constantly changing. As Keith Ewing at KCL says, “it will never be boring.”