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After the Bar

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Breaking into Employee Benefits Law

Michael R Odoca and Marie Skinner

Breaking into Employee Benefits Law

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It is probably safe to say that most people who entered law school did not dream about becoming an ERISA/employee benefits attorney. For one, many might not even know what ERISA is, and even if they do, practicing in the field of ERISA doesn’t seem as glamorous as areas such as criminal law or intellectual property. ERISA stands for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Its name is misleading, however, because ERISA also regulates health plans and other types of employee welfare benefit plans. ERISA’s primary purpose is to protect employee retirement and health benefits. Marie Skinner, my colleague, and I were like most individuals who never imagined a career in employee benefits.

ERISA Affects Almost All Americans

As of June 2019, the US Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the agency charged with overseeing ERISA-governed employee benefit plans, reports that American workers are covered by approximately 703,000 private retirement plans and 2.3 million health plans. Not everyone may deal with criminal law issues or try to file a patent, but almost everyone deals with some sort of health or retirement plan issue during their lifetime. My first substantial encounter dealing with an ERISA-covered plan (although I did not know at the time) happened when I was a high school student living on the island of Guam, a US territory. I was diagnosed with kidney stones and found myself thumbing through documents that explained how I could obtain off-island care in Los Angeles. Guam did not have the medical facilities capable of performing the procedure that I needed. I found myself deciphering terms such as in-network and out-of-network hospitals, co-insurance, and deductibles. Little did I know that I would later deal with the very same terms on a regular basis because of my chosen career path as an ERISA attorney.

Breaking into the Field of Employee Benefits

Some law schools offer courses in ERISA—like my alma mater the University of San Francisco School of Law. As I searched for an elective course to take, I stumbled onto the description of an ERISA course and became intrigued because it mentioned employee benefits. I signed up for the class and never regretted my decision. My ERISA professor ended up becoming a mentor to me, and the class opened employment opportunities for me in employee benefits.

While I obtained my internship at EBSA through my ERISA class, Marie came across her internship opportunity during a public law career fair. As interns, we gained practical ERISA experience. For example, ERISA requires those handling employee benefit plan funds to be properly bonded and insured. Marie worked on a large-scale bonding project where she made sure that ERISA plans complied with bonding requirements. I became familiarized with EBSA’s voluntary fiduciary correction program while reviewing applications submitted by employee benefit plans to self-correct ERISA violations. As federal investigators, we received formal training in ERISA fundamentals, such as fiduciary duties and prohibited transactions. We conducted investigations of various types of employee benefit plans, including Taft-Hartley plans. Marie investigated apprenticeship plans’ travel and expense policies and ensured plan assets were spent prudently. I found myself back in Guam investigating health and pension plans to make sure that workers’ retirement and health benefits were protected at a time when Guam’s tourism industry was hurting.

Practicing Employee Benefits Law

Marie and I both started our careers as interns at EBSA’s Los Angeles Regional Office and eventually became full-time federal ERISA investigators. We both transitioned from our positions as investigators and are currently the youngest ERISA attorneys at our firm.

Today, we represent multi-employer pension and health plans across a wide range of industries in Southern California, including sanitation, construction, and entertainment. The ERISA plans that we represent are jointly managed by employer and union trustees. We started practicing during exciting and challenging times—the Affordable Care Act was just being implemented and health plans scrambled to implement sweeping changes never seen before. At the same time, we also started practicing during an economic downturn when many retirement plans were underfunded. Our employee benefits practice is wide and varied—we negotiate contracts with plan service providers; analyze retirement and health plans for ERISA compliance; keep plan trustees informed of the latest laws about health or pension reform; draft plan documents, trust agreements, and summary plan descriptions—the documents that govern how retirement and health plans run. We also advise employee benefit plans that are under investigation by EBSA. Although a niche practice, employee benefits law is an engaging, dynamic, and challenging career that new attorneys may not be familiar with but should definitely consider.