Life as an employment lawyer

Adele Edwin-Lamerton gives junior lawyers an overview of the work of an employment lawyer.

Employment law is a popular qualification choice for many trainee solicitors. However, newly qualified solicitor roles are few and far between and this was the case even before the (now abolished) employment tribunal fees were introduced. If you are seeking a career as an employment solicitor, then you should bear the following in mind.

The employment relationship is unique

A persons’ job or career is second only to their family life and friendships in terms of longevity and intensity. It’s true to say that you spend more of your day at work than anywhere else. Employee clients often have a huge emotional attachment to their job, the loss of which can have devastating implications for their home, family and their health. Although governed by an objective, analytical document such as a statement of main terms or a contract, it can be incredibly informal in reality.

Some contractual obligations are performed once or twice a year without the parties ever actually meeting. The employment contract (whether it be what is written or what is custom) is performed day in, day out and is like no other contractual relationship in existence. If it isn’t performed, there could be catastrophic consequences. The legal avenues which are available to the parties for breach may be useless as a result.

Claims are limited until the employment relationship ends

Related to the point above is the highly practical point that many legal claims can only be brought once the employment relationship is at an end. If you are advising an employee who is still in employment it can actually be incredibly difficult. Often, you are using your negotiating and persuading skills and working behind the scenes to stop things becoming too formalised too soon. Filing a formal grievance can be the beginning of the end for a person’s career. You will frequently need to come up with practical solutions.

If you are advising an employer then this doesn’t necessarily mean you can rest on your laurels and wait until the aggrieved employee has left (however this comes about). There are several claims that can be brought while the employment relationship continues and some of them are incredibly serious such as whistleblowing and discrimination.

Prevention is better than a cure

As described above traditional litigation skills are not enough for an employment lawyer. You will be called upon again and again to give your advice on the next move. If you are working for an employer you will have to provide your advice on large scale functions such as transactions governed by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations (‘TUPE’), negotiating terms and conditions (sometimes via a trade union) and redundancy consultations.

You will also need to draft documents such as contracts of employment and staff handbooks. A large part of your focus will be on avoiding problems rather than solving them.

Speed is of the essence

Ultimately some claims do end up in the employment tribunal so you will need highly developed litigation skills. True, the three month less one day time limit (and appropriate extension through ACAS early conciliation, which put simply stops the clock for the purposes of limitation) is only of paramount importance to claimant lawyers. However, tribunal litigation moves quickly in general (despite hearings being listed into the next year).

Directions that you agree to (or have imposed upon you) at the preliminary hearing may become untenable and you will need your opponent’s agreement to change them if you want to avoid the time and expense of making an application. Everything you do costs your client money since each party bears their own costs, win or lose. Therefore, cooperating with your opponent wherever possible is wise.

And finally

Taking all of the above into account, you will also need to demonstrate high levels of commercial awareness, attention to detail, organisational skills, the ability to assimilate large amounts of information quickly and accurately and relationship management skills. To say it is not for the faint-hearted would be an understatement. Good luck.

Adele Edwin-Lamerton is chair of the Junior Lawyers Division and an employment solicitor at Pattinson & Brewer.

This article was first published by Lawyer2b on 6 August 2018 and is reproduced by kind permission.