Representing Labor in Labor and Employment Law

Published: Mar 31, 2009

Union boutiques

Labor-side attorneys usually practice at boutique-size firms committed specifically to union representation. These firms can range from a few attorneys to a few dozen, but even the largest union firms are dwarfed in size by their management-side counterparts. Union firms do not have the fanciest offices around and are usually without the support staff you might find on the management side. This requires union lawyers to engage in a fair amount of administrative work and other "non-lawyering" activities that many of their peers on the management side aren't bothered with.

Starting salaries on the union side are usually in the $45,000 to $80,000 range, depending on the geographic market. While the salaries at union firms may be lower than those at management firms, so are the billable hour requirements. Another upside to union-side practice is that these firms tend to specialize in union representation and do not have the management side's overlap between labor and employment law, so someone dedicated to traditional labor relations work can focus on those matters.

A mix of labor and employment law

A union-side firm isn't the only place to practice as a union lawyer. The largest unions usually have in-house legal departments and many union lawyers work in-house at a union itself. An in-house position at a union operates much like the in-house corporate counsel positions discussed below, but there are some aspects unique to union lawyers. Only the largest unions have in-house legal positions; average-size unions are represented by firms specializing in labor representation.

In-house union counsel must be excellent communicators able to deal with difficult people in emotional situations. In-house attorneys will also likely practice in both arenas of traditional labor law and general employment law. Unlike private practice, these attorneys don't get to choose their clients because they must represent the individual members of the union in addition to the union itself.

When representing individuals, in-house union lawyers encounter all types of employment issues, including contract disputes, discrimination claims and other violations of state employment laws. When representing the union, these attorneys are involved in organization efforts, collective bargaining negotiations, arbitrations and the various NLRB or state agency proceedings discussed in the last chapter. In-house lawyers do not always represent the union themselves and may coordinate representation from outside law firms. Union counsel also conduct training for the union staff engaged in CBA negotiation and arbitration and for other union members. Preparing publications to keep members informed on relevant legal issues is also a common task for in-house union lawyers.

In addition to representing the union on labor relations issues, these in-house attorneys also counsel their clients on the broad range of issues that arise for any business entity. Unions are employers like any other business, and in-house lawyers advise their clients on the whole spectrum of employment issues that arise in the employment setting. For example, unions can be sued under Title VII or similar state laws for discrimination, and in-house attorneys are frequently involved in defending the union in these cases. Segments of a union's employees, like the clerical employees, might be unionized themselves and the in-house attorney would be involved in all aspects of the relationship between the "inside" union and the employer-union in its management capacity. Union counsel also advise their clients on business-related issues that may include real estate, insurance or tax concerns. Again, in-house attorneys may work on these matters personally or farm out the work to outside counsel depending on the complexity of the matter and the degree of specialization required.

Satisfaction beyond salary

The salary range for in-house positions is usually slightly lower than for firm practice. However, although these positions tend to pay less than firm positions, in-house labor counsel commonly report that being such an integral part of the labor movement brings a sense of job satisfaction that might not be found elsewhere.


NLRB attorneys investigate and prosecute unfair labor practice charges before administrative law judges, the NLRB itself, federal appeals courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court. All of this action comes quickly to NLRB attorneys because matters are leanly staffed and there are plenty of small matters for new attorneys to work on. In addition to litigation-related activity, NLRB lawyers counsel the agency and its regional offices regarding all aspects of the NLRB's work.

According to an NLRB recruiting manual, many law school graduates start at the GS-11 level, with a salary of around $42,000. If they "develop as expected," they could reach a salary of $60,000 (GS-13 level) within two years.

While the thrill of actually litigating cases never gets old for some lawyers, many labor and employment attorneys prefer the counseling aspects of management-side practice and would rather spend their time providing preventive advice and guidance. After gaining a substantial base of litigation experience, some of these counseling-oriented lawyers leave firm practice to become "in-house" employment lawyers for large corporations. In-house positions play an important part in employment practice and you should be familiar with them if you plan to enter the field in any capacity.