Building a Career as an Employment Lawyer
Employment lawyers handle cases related to the employer-employee relationship and federal, state, and local employment laws. These attorneys handle issues such as wrongful termination, workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and workplace violence. They also handle claims related to laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which contains provisions for overtime pay, child labor restrictions, and the federal minimum wage.
Like all attorneys in the United States, every employment lawyer must attend an accredited law school and pass a comprehensive state examination to practice law. Most states require that attorneys attend schools approved by the American Bar Association to be eligible to take the bar examination. During law school, a prospective attorney takes courses related to contracts, torts, civil procedure, property law, criminal procedure, and legal writing. Someone who wants to be an employment attorney can supplement these courses with electives in labor law, alternative dispute resolution, employment discrimination, employment law, and workers' rights to develop an understanding of the legal issues facing employers and their employees. Many schools also require law students to participate in internship or cooperative education programs. Someone who wants to build a career as an employment attorney could gain additional knowledge in this field by interning with an experienced employment lawyer.
Employment attorneys who choose to work for employers defend business owners in state and federal courts. They may also represent their clients in administrative courts. These attorneys defend employers against wage and hour disputes, discrimination and harassment claims, class action suits, wrongful termination claims, retaliation claims, and lawsuits involving trade secrets and competition. Employment attorneys also provide training and preventive services to help employers avoid costly employment litigation. Some attorneys write employee manuals or review previously written manuals to ensure that employers follow the letter of the law when hiring, training, supervising, and terminating employees.
Some employment lawyers represent the plaintiffs in employment law disputes. These plaintiffs are often current or previous employees who have filed claims related to compensation, sexual harassment, discrimination based on race or gender, religious discrimination, wrongful termination, or disability discrimination. Employment attorneys also pursue retaliation claims against employers who have fired employees shortly after they reported dangerous or illegal activities going on in the workplace.
Employment attorneys must be familiar with all of the major employment laws in the United States, as well as the laws governing employment in their specific states. An employment attorney might file claims related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 introduced the concept of the worker's right to a safe workplace. It also established a federal agency to create safety standards and ensure employers comply with those standards. An employment lawyer may defend an employer in safety-related lawsuits, or the attorney may represent employees who were forced to work in dangerous conditions.
One of the largest associations for employment attorneys is the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA). NELA offers professional resources for attorneys who handle employment-related cases. The organization also offers an information exchange, where employment lawyers can ask each other questions and exchange ideas related to legal issues in employment. NELA also has state chapters, giving employment and labor attorneys the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas. The National Employment Law Institute offers continuing education programs for attorneys interested in employment law. Topics covered in these programs include employee benefits, immigration, ethics, harassment, genetic discrimination, wage and hour law, social media policies, and labor relations. The organization also publishes resources for employment and labor law attorneys.
The American Bar Association has a Section of Labor and Employment Law, which is open to all members of the association. Participating in this group gives employment and labor attorneys networking opportunities and the chance to interact with government contacts from organizations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. The group also has a national conference each year, giving employment attorneys a chance to present papers and interact with other lawyers in this practice area.