Labor and employment law deals with a broad area of law that governs the rights and duties between employers and workers.
Many of the governing laws are designed to keep workers safe and ensure they are treated fairly, although laws also protect employers’ interests. Employment laws are based on federal and state constitutions, legislation, administrative rules, and court opinions. Select employment relationships may also be governed by contract.
Many of the employment disputes that result in litigation deal with “wage and hour” violations. Federal law establishes baseline rules with respect to these issues, and then states are free to pass laws providing additional protections. For example, federal law requires a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. A majority of states have approved a higher minimum wage (14 states put new minimum wages into effect on January 1, 2016), and employers in those states must comply.
Wage and hour laws also regulate overtime pay. The federal government does not place limits on the number of hours adults may work per week, but after 40 hours, employers must pay additional compensation, unless the employee falls into a category “exempt” from the law. Many disputes revolve around whether an employee is properly classified as “exempt” from the time-and-a-half overtime pay requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Discrimination in the workplace is another basis for many employment law cases. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act make it illegal to treat workers differently based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, age, or disability. Many employees seeking to pursue discrimination claims hire attorneys, as they must follow detailed procedures, such as obtaining a Right-To-Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Employers hire attorneys to defend against these lawsuits and to ensure compliance with appropriate laws before disciplinary action or termination occurs.
Current “hot” issues in labor and employment law include sexual orientation and gender discrimination, race and national origin discrimination, and the exercise of religion in the workplace. Wage and hour disputes and disagreement over whether an individual is properly categorized as an “employee” versus an “independent contractor” are also an important part of an employment lawyer’s workload.
What do labor and employment lawyers do?
Attorneys play a role on both the labor and management side of labor relations disputes. Labor and employment attorneys work in private firms; nonprofit policy and direct service organizations; and federal, state, local, and international government agencies. Typically, labor and employment lawyers stick to one “side” of representations – working on behalf of employers, employees, or unions – although there are more nuanced situations, such as representing executives or non-competition agreements.
Litigation often constitutes a significant component of employment law practice, and some large law firms have labor and employment attorneys within their general litigation practice group, rather than in a separate group. While many of the laws governing labor and employment law are federal laws and regulations, many states and some localities have enacted their own laws governing employment and compensation. Non-competition clauses in employment contracts may also lead to litigation in state or local courts.
Mediation, negotiation, and arbitration are another set of labor and employment practices. While the roles that attorneys play in alternative dispute resolution may vary, most of the mediation and arbitration work is centered on issues arising under contracts between employees and their employers, whether a collective bargaining agreement with a union or mandatory arbitration clauses in employee handbooks. Labor lawyers may also be involved with organizing efforts when working for or with unions, or to oppose organizing if on the employer-side. Labor and employment lawyers who work for government agencies may spend much of their time engaged in rulemaking and regulatory enforcement, and those in private practice engage in a good deal of advice work.
Labor and employment attorneys may advise their clients on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the legality of performing background checks on potential employees to the elements of a discrimination claim to whether an individual should be treated as an employee or an independent contractor under labor and tax laws. Labor and employment lawyers in private practice might also advise their clients on issues relating to human resources, such as overseeing the discipline or termination of an employee to minimize the risks of unlawful actions.
What to do if you’re interested in pursuing a career in labor & employment
Employers will look for a strong demonstrated interest in labor or employment law. You can show this interest by interning with an organization undertaking labor or employment law work, writing relevant articles for journals, taking courses focused on labor and employment law issues, and/or participating in a clinic dealing with labor or employment issues.
Georgetown Law Courses/Clinics
Labor Law: Union Organization, Collective Bargaining, and Unfair Labor Practices
Disability Discrimination Law
Contemporary Bias and Law Seminar
Corporate Responsibility for Workers in the Global Supply Chain Seminar
Gender and Sexuality: Law and Theory
International Law of Labor and Employment
Labor Arbitration Seminar
Low-Wage and Excluded Workers Practicum
Modern Abolition: The Practice of Ending Child Labor and Human Trafficking Practicum
Sexual Orientation and the Law: Selected Topics in Civil Rights
Professors to Know
Michael H. Gottesman
Eleanor Holmes Norton
James C. Oldham
Susan Deller Ross
Jamillah Bowman Williams
Georgetown Law Student Groups
- Labor and Employment Law Society
Relevant Bar Associations
- ABA Section of Labor & Employment Law (law students may join for free)
- National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) (law students can join for $20 per year; membership permits access to NELA members and a variety of publications and a job bank)
- Labor & Employment committees of city and state Bar Associations; state and local chapters of NELA
Where it’s Hot
Though many lawyers practicing labor and employment law reside in large cities such as New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, attorneys can practice labor and employment law nearly anywhere in the country and in the world. States with strict employment laws, such as California, will see a slightly “hotter” practice in this area.
If you are interested in international labor issues, you may consider working in areas with more agriculture, such as California, the South, or Florida, where migrant workers may present a host of employment issues.
Helpful Labor & Employment Law Resources
- OCS Labor & Employment Practice Area Podcast, Richard Sloane, Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the President at Legal Services Corporation
- AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee includes tips for law students, key resources for finding a job in union side labor law and a job board for labor law internships, post grad fellowships and attorney positions.
- HG.org: Employment/Labor Law provides a basic overview of the practice area as well as useful links to educational resources and selected employers.
- International Labor Rights Forum is an advocacy organization dedicated to achieving just and humane treatment for workers worldwide.
- National Employment Law Project is a national advocacy organization for the employment rights of lower-wage workers.
- Employment Law Information Network
- National Employment Law Institute
Representative Employers, Internships, and Post-Graduate Fellowship Opportunities
- DC Employment Justice Center
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- International Labour Organization
- National Labor Relations Board
- U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, Employment Litigation Section
- U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor
- Large law firms, including Chambers Top-ranked Labor and Employment law firms, such as Jones Day, Morgan Lewis, Paul Hastings, and Proskauer Rose, will have labor and employment practices or will have attorneys who specialize within the field in their Litigation departments.
- Firms specializing primarily in employer-side labor and employment law, including Littler Mendelson, Jackson Lewis, and Fisher and Phillips.
- Office of Personnel Management administers the Fair Labor Standards Act for federal employees
- State agencies that work on labor and employment issues may include Departments of Labor, Workforce Development, Industrial Accidents, and Labor Relations.
- Private employee-side firms, such as James & Hoffman, Outten & Golden, or Correia & Puth.
- Peggy Browning Summer Fellowship Program
- SEIU Post-Graduate Fellowship
- AFL-CIO Fellowship
- Paul H. Tobias Fellowship sponsored by NELA to work at the Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law & Policy in San Francisco
- U.S. Department of Labor Honors Attorney Program
- National Labor Relations Board Honors Attorney Program