The Pros and Cons of a Career in Employment Law

Published: Mar 10, 2009

Cases with personality

Employment litigation passes the "cocktail party test" with flying colors. While their colleagues discuss derivative suits, reverse triangle mergers and obscure patent claims, employment litigators talk about the deep, dark secrets of the workplace next door - the "sexy" cases that often make their way into the headlines and cost big companies serious money. Employment litigators love the human interest of their practice. They also appreciate the intriguing scenarios that form the basis of many employment cases. In fact, one of the first things many employment litigators say they enjoy about their practice is that it is all about people. Employment cases are never about Bank X suing Corporation Z over a multimillion-dollar contract gone bad. They are about real people and real emotion.

Many employment lawyers enjoy digging into the personality issues at the heart of their cases. Getting a feel for the personal side of a case may entail parsing e-mails, interoffice memos, performance evaluations, personnel files or psychiatric reports. Every new case involves a unique and highly personal story - one of actual or perceived indignities suffered, a job lost under troubling circumstances or accusations of egregious conduct on the job. The ever-changing factual scenarios keep employment lawyers keenly interested in their work even after decades of practice. The hours you work as a litigator may tire you out, but you will almost never be bored.

Nevertheless, there is a less glamorous aspect to close involvement with the personal aspects of a case. Lawyers may be reviewing personnel records with an eye toward mass layoffs or terminating an individual employee. As one management-side associate remarks, "It can be very depressing to sit at a company for days on end reviewing the personnel records and work histories of lists of employees who will be out of work just as soon as you finish." On the other hand, if the employment lawyer sometimes feels like an executioner, the same attorney may take solace in his role as "guardian of the employment laws designed to promote fairness in the workplace" by helping temper emotional reactions and suggesting strategies to improve a particular employee's performance or handle a "bad apple."

The dynamic nature of employment law

Plaintiffs who bring successful employment discrimination suits are often awarded economic damages for lost wages, as well as damages for emotional distress. Moreover, employers can be slapped with punitive damages hefty enough to cause any CFO to lose sleep. Verdicts in employment cases are nearly always made, for better or worse, by juries. The inherent unpredictability of jury verdicts heightens the element of risk for both sides.

Adding another level to the intrinsic volatility of employment practice are the laws themselves, which are always fluctuating. Employment lawyers must keep abreast of these changes, as old laws are amended, new laws are passed and judges interpret the subtleties of statutes. In view of the frequency with which employment-related cases reach the Supreme Court, keeping up with decisions that could alter the face of landmark statutes is both essential and exciting. The dynamic and evolving nature of employment law ensures that attorneys will remain intellectually challenged throughout their careers.

More pros and cons of employment practice

Many employment attorneys specialize in one substantive area of the law, in contrast to their counterparts in other areas of commercial litigation, for example, where practitioners must learn a new body of law for each case they litigate. Sarah Bouchard, a senior associate in the labor and employment department at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, believes that this aspect of the practice allows attorneys on the management side to improve their litigation skills while gathering expertise that enhances their counseling on employment matters. Similarly, mastery of one set of substantive laws enables employment lawyers on the plaintiffs' side to focus less energy on legal research and devote more time to other aspects of the litigation process, like preparing briefs and developing a trial strategy. On the flip side, practitioners say specialization "has certain drawbacks." As one lawyer with both boutique and big-firm experience observes, specializing in the relatively narrow field of employment law can make it hard to transfer between law firms, since attorneys will only be hired if there is an opening in that department, and employment departments are typically not very large. Another attorney highlights the broader issue of partnership prospects; for those associates not looking - or not likely - to make partner, it's worth bearing in mind that in-house employment law positions are "few and far between," so that an experienced employment lawyer might have less chance of going in-house than, say, a corporate attorney.Similarly, while employment litigation can be exciting and dynamic, it doesn't come without headaches, and practitioners must deal with much of the unpleasantness that attorneys in other litigation-centered practices encounter daily. Court deadlines are demanding and often dominate lawyers' schedules and personal lives. Trials can be taxing and exhausting. Dealings with opposing counsel are often difficult and highly confrontational. In short, hours can be as long for labor and employment lawyers as for lawyers in other practices.