Employment law is broad in its scope and application, encompassing all matters related to the workplace. Employment lawyers advise global organisations, public and private sector clients, charities and individuals. The work of an employment lawyer can therefore be divided into two distinct categories – that concerning an employee and his or her respective rights and obligations, and that concerning the employer’s rights and obligations. The number of firms who act exclusively for claimants is limited, with the majority of firms either acting for both, as is often the case with high street firms, or acting exclusively for the employer side, as is often the case with City and large regional firms.
Employment law is extremely dynamic, jurisdiction specific and subject to frequent legislative and case law developments as employers are often at the forefront of social change. It constitutes contract law and statutory rights, with a great many of these rights deriving from European Community law. Indeed, many of the changes to employment law are being driven by developments at European Union level. There are also frequent changes which can be attributed to developments in domestic legislation and in recent times these changes have often focused on family-friendly rights.
What does this type of lawyer do?
Contentious work encompasses the like of disciplinary and grievance matters within individual employment relationships, remuneration, employer negligence and culpability, and employee liability - resulting in Employment Tribunal claims (occasionally also High Court and county court claims) or negotiating a settlement. Non-contentious work can comprise advising employers on employment aspects of company sales, drafting employment contracts and policies, and providing guidance on restructuring and redundancy programmes. Employment law is therefore about far more than just dealing with employment contracts - employment lawyers will often be called upon to give general advice relating to any matter that falls under the umbrella of employment.
Employment lawyers have the opportunity to work with a diverse range of clients as virtually all organisations employ people, and the complexity of the legal matters dealt with is by no means always related to the size of the employer. Employment law is therefore varied and intellectually stimulating, with the possibility to become involved in high publicity cases. Due to the potential variety of cases, coupled with a typically steady flow of work and a work/life balance that is viewed as good, employment law is one of the more popular areas of law to practice, thus competition is stiff.
What skills are required?
Trainees can expect to have a lot of direct contact with clients, be it assisting an employer with the employment aspects of corporate transactions or an employee with preparations for tribunal claims. Empathy is a quality that is frequently alluded to by those working in employment law and this is primarily due to clients having to deal with unpleasant and personal allegations made against them. An employment lawyer therefore has to be very supportive to help stressed and vulnerable clients and at times trainees may be expected to advocate for their clients at an Employment Tribunal thus public speaking skills are certainly an advantage.
Employment lawyers are frequently required to draft letters, agreements and litigation documents, and research skills are vital as employment law is more legally technical than many areas of legal practice. Practising a mix of contentious, advisory and non-contentious work requires strong organisational skills.
Adaptability is essential to cope with the constantly changing law, particularly with regards to new legislation that arrives in April and October each year. Trainees will also need to have strong commercial awareness to understand a client’s business as well as to establish relations quickly with HR and other business people.
Finally, a good awareness of marketing and business development can prove beneficial in order to help the firm establish strong relations with clients and to win new work, in what is a very competitive area of law.
The frequency of legislation, amendments to legislation and the impact of employment cases, means that lawyers working in Employment law have to be on top of the law as their work can be fundamentally altered by these changes.
One of the most significant changes recently has been the introduction of significant fees which claimants must pay to bring a case to an employment tribunal. The stated intention was to reduce the number of ‘frivolous’ claims. Since the introduction of these fees the number of equal pay claims has fallen by 83% and sex discrimination claims fell by up to 91% (in the first quarter of 2014). However, many lawyers are concerned that among these cases were many with merit. Whether merited on not, this decline in the number of cases brought to tribunals has impacted on the potential work of lawyers – representing both sides of disputes.
In addition, for those working for claimants, changes to legal aid funding also removed employment law – except discrimination – from publically funded work.
Those working primarily for defendants have been affected by the reduction in tribunal claims, but they remain busy advising client in relation to a range of new legislation.
What's it like in practice
Find out what some of our people who have practised employment law say about it, and the advice that they would give those interested in a career in this area. Look at the following Case Studies:
The following guides to the legal profession have information on employment law:
Discover more about Employment Tribunal claims and settlement processes: