Work it…

Employment law covers all matters related to the workplace; whether you work in a small firm or you are a cog in a big corporate wheel. Beginning with hiring, it moves through a complete cycle which can end in cessation of employment, voluntary or forced.

Why does employment law involve?

On the one hand, employment law is concerned with an employee and his/her rights and obligations. On the other hand, it deals with the employer’s rights, duties and obligations. Into this equation come matters of legislation, statutory authorities, regulations of conduct and the actual processes through which the law is administered and followed. If you’re thinking about entering this area of law, the first obvious step will be to identify the area in which you want to specialise, looking for firms and opportunities where this requirement can be fulfilled.

Solicitors who represent individuals or a group of employees will work on collecting information and research, preparing documentation (e.g. contracts, claims and pleadings), providing advice to clients and conducting negotiations and settlements on their behalf. Employment lawyers representing employers will provide advice to companies and institutions on defence against claims, HR policies covering all aspects of employment, contractual content on remuneration, early and normal retirements, and negotiate with employees and/or their unions.

Break it down for me a little bit!

Employment law focuses on everything to do with the world of work, including the hiring of resources, advertising of job openings, the recruitment process, new joining formalities, remuneration, the promotion and movement of employees, the benefits and perks that are provided, organisation restructuring, voluntary exits and litigation.

Non-contentious work will focus on providing advice, drafting, transactional tasks, and dispute resolution through arbitration and negotiations. Contentious work will cover dismissals, breach of contracts, harassment, redundancy/lay-off and discrimination on the grounds of age, sex, religion and disability.

To practise employment law, a solicitor needs to be agile and adaptable, able to operate in a constantly changing environment. They should have clear and methodical thought-process, good reasoning and excellent communication skills. Furthermore, they will need to be up-to-date with legal and commercial processes.

Since this area of law sometimes involves dealing with the good, the bad and ugly aspects of human nature, an employment lawyer will need to be friendly, empathetic and professional. 

Charlie Rae, Partner in Employment Law at Shoosmiths. Here, he outlines a typical day in his working life, noting the importance of employment law. 

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?

After enjoying a first cup of coffee and a quick chat with colleagues who are in that day, I will review my diary and recently received emails and I think about what needs to be done during the day ahead.  That allows me to write my “to do list” and after that, I’m off and running.

How do you handle and organise / prioritise your workload?

One of the interesting aspects of my role is that no two days are the same.  As much as I try to plan ahead, I often find that I need to react to client needs as and when they arise.  It’s not unusual that I might need to drop what I’m working on to join an urgent call or client meeting where employment law advice is needed.  In many ways, that unpredictability keeps the working day interesting but it can mean that prioritising work is tricky.  We always make sure that we understand what deadlines our clients need us to work to, which really helps us to know how work needs to be prioritised.  I’m also lucky to be part of a large team, meaning I’m able to call on my colleagues to ensure we can provide a timely service to our clients.

What sort of daily responsibilities does a partner have in employment law? How does it differ from an associate role?

Like any employment lawyer a large part of my role involves me providing advice to clients, or colleagues in other specialisms (e.g. Corporate), on employment law matters.  In that respect my role is the same as that of an associate, but as a partner sometimes that will mean I’m supporting my team with tactical input or supervision on a matter, rather than me being the lawyer who is actually delivering the advice.  One of the main differences with the partner role are that a number of my responsibilities don’t actually involve delivering employment law advice; rather they relate to me managing the wellbeing and performance of my team, looking after and developing the relationships that we have with our clients and working on attracting new clients to Shoosmiths.

Can you give us an idea of the sort of projects you manage from day to day? Which aspect of employment law is dealt with most frequently by Shoosmiths?

The work that I do is varied and like most employment lawyers it tends to be a mixture of contentious and non-contentious matters.   On the contentious side, it usually involves me managing employment tribunal claims for clients by helping them to (generally) defend proceedings that have been brought against them. With a lot of our cases we are able to negotiate an acceptable outcome for the client without going to a hearing, but my role can involve me appearing in front of the employment tribunal to present our client’s case.   I also give a lot of day to day advice on matters such as senior employee exists, or helping then to deal with employee grievances.  It’s only a part of our work that involves disputes though.  We also help clients and colleagues in other teams on the employment law aspects of matters such as mergers and acquisitions, reorganisations and outsourcing.  There’s probably no one aspect of our work that qualifies as “most frequent” – the variety is what makes the role so interesting!

What sort of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?

At Shoosmiths the large majority of our clients are employers, although we make sure that we advise employees too so that we don’t end up only giving advice from one perspective. Our clients come from a wide variety of sectors and industries. For my part, I tend to work with a lot of clients who are retailers, manufacturers, professional services firms, education establishments, as well as a number of membership bodies and charities.

Chris Tutton is a partner in Employment Law at Irwin Mitchell’s London office. He enjoys the “broad range of work which means that no one day is the same” and works with employers in the property and construction, financial services and recruitment sectors.

Can you give us a brief overview of what employment law is all about?

Practicing employment law is all about helping clients make sense of the complex legislation and case law which governs the relationship between employees and employers. Employment lawyers typically carry out a mixture of contentious work, such as Employment Tribunal litigation, and non-contentious advisory work. For this reason, it is a really varied and interesting specialism. It can involve anything from assisting an exiting employee in negotiating a settlement package with their employer to advising a company on a large scale redundancy or restructuring project.

What are some of the daily tasks that you come across when working in this area of law?

Like most employment lawyers, I do a combination of contentious and non-contentious work. My typical day will see me advising HR directors or in-house Counsel on issues such as discrimination and dismissal procedures. I am likely to be working on several pieces of high value litigation, which may require me to draft applications or witness statements. As I work closely with colleagues in the firm’s Corporate, Real Estate and Insolvency teams, I will also be advising clients on the employment aspects of mergers and acquisitions, and outsourcing.

Why did you choose to specialise/qualify in employment law?

I find the technical application of employment law very interesting. I also enjoy using imagination and lateral thinking to solve problems for my clients. Ultimately, my role is to help clients make the best decisions in relation to one of their key assets, their employees.

I also enjoy the broad range of work which means that no one day is the same. My workload is varied and I am able to work alongside lawyers in different departments to assist on a variety of transactions and larger strategic projects.

In your experience, what qualities or attributes does a lawyer need to work in this area of law?

An employment lawyer needs strong interpersonal and communication skills to be able to advise both companies and individuals in relation to an area of law which can be extremely complex and sometimes highly emotive.

It is also important to be practical and commercially minded. An employment lawyer needs to understand their clients’ aims in order to advise companies on the running of their business. It is important to offer practical and appropriately tailored advice rather than an academic break down of the law.

Have you ever had to work on a case where you feel sympathetic to the other side, i.e. employees that are getting fired? How often does that happen? How do you handle that?

Employers (in my experience at least) almost always act for a good business reason and would only dismiss an employee if there was a valid reason to do so. Of course, you feel compassion in certain cases, but it is important to bear in mind that it is ultimately a business relationship. Take the case of carrying out a redundancy exercise. Whilst it is sad for the individuals that lose their employment, the company may not have survived without reducing its costs, and that could lead to far more job losses.

What kind of clients do you find yourself working with most?

In Irwin Mitchell’s London office, we work mainly for employers. We have a wide range of clients across various sectors but in particular, the property and construction, financial services and recruitment sectors.

How would you describe your workload? Do busy periods alternate with lulls or is it all go, go, go?

As you might expect from a London partner, my workload is large. However, there are times which are busier than others. High Court injunctions, large corporate transactions and complicated Tribunal hearings can all be time intensive and increase my day-to-day workload.

In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in employment law?

Employment law is constantly evolving through case law and legislation. It is also an area of law which is highly political, and successive Governments introduce significant wide-ranging reforms. All of this keeps employment lawyers on their toes.

In a similar vein, what is the most rewarding aspect of working in employment law?

The most rewarding aspect of working in employment law is building long-term business relationships with clients. By interacting with clients on a daily basis and providing support and solutions, you feel a valued partner in their business.

Where do you see your career progressing from here?

The legal market is changing and law firms are trying to find ways to meet the client’s demands for ‘more for less’. The profession needs to have more innovation and technologically advanced legal solutions. In addition to practicing as a specialist employment lawyer, my career will increasingly involve helping the firm to find ways to innovate and develop our business.

Have you had any particularly memorable cases while working in employment law? Can you tell us a little bit more about one (confidentiality permitting, of course!)? 

I recently defended four clients in a claim for race discrimination. We won the case in the Court of Appeal and established new law on the admissibility of evidence. The judge that gave the leading judgment in my case had been an advocate and Judge (when he sat in the court below) in two of the previous case law authorities in this area (so he certainly knew the issues inside out).

What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers looking to eventually qualify in employment law?

I would advise aspiring employment lawyers looking to qualify in employment law to gain as much practical experience as possible. Undertaking pro-bono projects, work experience placements and paralegal work are all valuable experiences and will set you apart when starting your training contract.

It is also essential that aspiring lawyers develop their commerciality. You will be required to go beyond looking at purely legal solutions to understand exactly what your client needs.

It is also important to have enthusiasm for the topic. Sign up for one of the many free employment law updates available and take the time to understand the political issues which affect employment law in the UK. 

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