Congratulations. You’ve passed the bar and selected a fascinating practice area. Not only is employment law one of the most engaging areas of legal practice, it inherently involves people—their perceptions, interactions, stories—and never grows stale. Having seen my share of young attorneys both joining and leaving employment law practice, here is some advice to help new practitioners thrive.
1. Focus on professional development. Store away as much substantive employment law knowledge as you can. New employment attorneys can get a head start by tackling the substantive framework of federal and applicable state employment laws. Pick an easily digestible secondary reference on employment law in your jurisdiction and read it cover to cover. Often edited for an audience of both lawyers and non-lawyer human resources (HR) professionals, many references describe legal requirements applicable to the entire spectrum of the employment process, from interviewing and hiring through employment and termination. With any billable hours requirement, the practical reality is that you’ll have to do this kind of self-study in your off time. Find a way to do it, though—even if it means you need to take this reading on vacation (as I’ve done). Once you’ve developed a foundation, religiously keep abreast of changes, as this practice area evolves often. When clients eventually call with questions on a specific subject, you’ll be able to handle common questions off the top of your head, reserving research for more arcane areas of the law.
2. Become an expert. Make yourself the expert on a sub-practice area such as harassment, leave of absence, wage-and-hour, or class actions. If you’re given a chance to write a leave manual or conduct a sexual harassment investigation, seize the opportunity. You may become the firm’s go-to person the next time a client has a similar need.
3. Be a detective. They say that there are always two sides to every story, and that’s especially true in our practice. It’s up to you to develop the complete factual background in a case by asking witnesses the right questions, making connections, engendering confidence, and being an advocate. As you prepare your client’s case, ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” If not, dig deeper. No matter what side you’re on, spend time looking at key actors and try to determine: What motivates them? What dynamics were at play preceding or during the employment incident(s)? Why is your witness the more credible one? Keep asking questions until you’re satisfied, and you’ll be surprised at what you can learn.
4. Do what you love. An employment practice has more built-in flexibility to grow and take new directions than many others. If, after a few years, you decide that employment litigation isn’t for you, that doesn’t mean that you have to leave employment law practice. See if you can shift your emphasis toward compliance and counseling work, such as writing employee handbooks, policies, and agreements. If private practice in a firm setting has lost its luster, think about signing on with a regulatory agency or taking your skills to the in-house law department of a major company. I’ve also seen employment attorneys cross the line from the legal to the business world by becoming HR executives. Your knowledge is transferable, so if you try something and it doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to make a change.
Other keys to success—such as hard work, client service, and putting in the hours—are not practice-area specific, but no less valuable. So, plan to hunker down these next few years and focus on developing your skills and learning the law. You won’t regret it.