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Career Focus: Employment Law

Ever met an unemployed employment lawyer? Unlikely. This practice area is a hardy perennial, guaranteeing a regular flow of legal business for as long as companies hire people to do work for them and the state regulates the conditions under which they do so. As such, it’s a firm favourite for newly hatched lawyers who want steady work for themselves.

That doesn’t mean it’s boring, mind you. Far from it. For one thing, employment law changes regularly, partly due to the political nature of workplace rights (the qualifying length of employment before someone can claim unfair dismissal is reduced under every Labour government and increased under every Conservative one). New legislation comes into force every April and October, meaning that just keeping on top of what’s going on can be a challenge. There are also social shifts that can quickly alter perceptions of what’s acceptable in the workplace, such as the #MeToo movement that experts say is forcing a change in how companies deal with complaints of harassment.

Another aspect that keeps employment law interesting is that you don’t have to rigidly specialise. While some firms only take on claimant work, others take on both employees and employers as clients. “We think it’s important to do both because you need to be able to see it from both sides of the coin,” solicitor Shalina Crossley explains. The softly spoken West Londoner, a partner at medium-sized outfit Lewis Silkin since 2016, also says that employment work can be extremely varied.

“I would describe myself as a generalist employment lawyer. I do both contentious and non-contentious work. Most of my work (probably 80-90%) is for businesses rather than individuals. During a typical day I advise my clients in relation to their day-to-day employee relations issues -- from hiring to firing and everything else in between.” On the same day Verdict meets her, Crossley has also been working on an investigation report into sexual harassment allegations, advised a client on how to deal with a grievance alleging discrimination raised by a senior executive, drafted an employment contract for a new managing director and advised on some tricky intellectual property clauses in another.

Above all, she says, this is a people business.

“Employment is about people’s stories and relationships. We all spend such a large proportion of our time in the office so if something’s not right at work it affects people quite profoundly. When you are advising a client about how they should handle an employee relations issue, as well as understanding your client’s commercial drivers and the legal framework, you must also try to put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Understanding what someone’s story is, what is driving them, how they engage and want to engage with work and how they will react informs the approach you take. I feel it’s more human than, for example, corporate law.”

Crossley herself has a particular focus on professional services clients – she acts for a number of law firms: “We’ve become known as ‘the lawyers’ lawyers’,” she says proudly. Having a lot of lawyers as clients wouldn’t be the dream vocation for everyone -- they say doctors make the worst patients, after all. “They have a keen eye for detail,” Crossley says, deadpan.

The work/life balance in this field is often better than the legal average. Crossley, who has children at home aged 7 and 9, works four days a week and leaves the office at quarter to five to make sure she’s there at bedtime. There are times when long hours are required, especially when litigation looms: this is mostly in the employment tribunal and in High Court cases such as when whole teams of executives jump ship to another company. But, in general, working life is fairly regular and employment clients don’t tend to be on the phone at all hours.

One of the most important things to bear in mind when weighing up career choices is that subjects that didn’t interest you much in the lecture hall can look very different in the real world. Crossley’s advice is not to let that put you off trying it again as a training seat. Employment, after all, wasn’t her first choice either.

“Actually I didn’t want to do employment having studied it on the LPC and at university. When we covered it in the classroom, employment law was about the legislation,” the KCL graduate explains. “That didn’t really bring the facts to life in a way it does when you’re advising on a day-to-day basis.” As you might have heard from time to time, legal practice is all about providing practical solutions to people’s problems rather than reeling off LexisNexis.

“The clients don’t want to know what the law is: they’ve got a problem, they want you to help them solve it and because it involves people’s emotions you need to help clients navigate that. You’ve got to know what the law is so that you can work within the parameters of it, but it’s much less about black letter law than about trying to find practical solutions to achieve your client’s desired commercial outcome whilst also enabling an employee to feel they were treated fairly and with respect.” If you’ve got that kind of empathy in you, employment law is a great outlet for it.

 

KEY FACTS

Pay

Lewis Silkin pays its half a dozen trainees £37,250, but if you fancy mixing it in the Magic Circle, all the big UK firms have employment law teams and start first year trainees on around £45,000. At the bar, members of Old Square Chambers have been involved with some of the most cutting-edge recent employment cases. Pupillage there comes with a £50,000 award.

High profile employment lawyers

James Davies and Michael Burd, Lewis Silkin co-heads of employment; Chuka Umunna, anti-Brexit MP; Sean Jones QC, silk and social media icon.

Key elements of the job

Claimant solicitors advise clients on whether they’ve been treated unlawfully at work and what, if any, compensation they might be entitled to. Defendant solicitors advise companies on the same thing in reverse, and on how to avoid getting hit with such claims in the first place. Getting evidence together to support the claim or defence is a key element, and negotiation and advocacy skills will come in very handy at different stages of the claim. There’s also non-contentious work, such as formulating workplace policies and drafting employment contracts or golden parachutes for execs.

How to get a foot in the door

Volunteering at Citizens Advice or legal clinics will give you a flavour of people’s employment problems. Try to get in front of some employment lawyers to find out about their job and pick some brains: Lewis Silkin runs evening workshops for potential trainees, with practitioners from different areas describing their jobs. To have something to talk about when networking find out what’s going on in the area by reading the likes of the Sacked in the City blog.

 

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