A seat in employment

The work of a good employment lawyer goes beyond the realms of black-letter law. Here's what I learnt from my training contract seat in employment...

27 January 2017

By trainee solicitor Daniel Hogg

I spent the second seat of my training contract in the firm’s employment department – here’s what I learnt about work within this practice area, and the skills which it can help trainees to develop.

1. Variety of work

In any department within Burges Salmon, the variety of work offered to a trainee, even within a four month seat, can be surprisingly broad. This is certainly the case for employment, where the subject matter of your work can range from reviewing restrictive covenants or confidentiality clauses that protect a client’s commercial interests, to preparing witness statements and evidence for an emotionally-charged discrimination claim in the employment tribunal. The opportunity to experience both contentious and non-contentious work in one seat is a quality which very few other departments can offer.

It is not only the type of work which is varied – likewise, the commercial contexts within which an employment lawyer may be asked to advise, can involve a diverse range of industries. You could, for example, find yourself advising on two redundancy processes, one for a financial services client with a small number of highly-paid employees, and the other for a car manufacturing client with a large work-force. The skill of a good lawyer here is to apply the advice in a way which is most appropriate to each client’s specific needs while being considerate of the wider commercial or industry-driven influences.

2. Commercial awareness

Clearly, then, the deliberations of a good employment lawyer reach beyond the realms of black-letter employment law when providing advice. Commercial awareness plays a key role in employment work, as it does for other practice areas. It is this which provides an extra dimension to the work, where the most “obvious” or risk averse legal solution may not always align with the client’s business-needs, or indeed the wider financial or political environment at a particular time.

Take for example, the quandary of an employer, whose top-performing sales manager is walking on thin-ice after an internal disciplinary process – to continue employing them might cause dissatisfaction among the other employees, but to dismiss the manager would risk a serious downturn in the business’ profits… and that's before you consider the knock-on effect that acquiescence to this type of behaviour might have when treating others in future disciplinaries.

As with most things, there are also the cost implications to consider. Dismissing an employee with several years' employment service will, in the short term, pose risks of legal claims (or a potentially costly settlement in negotiating their exit), however, if their continued employment poses a risk to the business interests or reputation of the company, the commercial considerations will often outweigh these legal and financial risks.

3. People

In addition to the commercial considerations, an employment lawyer will frequently be required to take into account the people involved in a particular scenario. It is the “people" element of the work which often attracts lawyers to this practice area.

As with the examples above, depending on the facts, the legal solutions or potential ramifications might pale into insignificance when considered against sensitive and personal considerations of the employees; particularly when the advice concerns long standing employees, or employees within a family business. Here, a good employment lawyer will consider the repercussions of these additional concerns against the bigger legal and commercial picture.

4. Cross-departmental work

Finally, work within the employment team, as a trainee or a qualified solicitor, exposes you to work from different parts of the firm. One day you might be asked to contribute to the employment elements of a corporate transaction or a large commercial project, providing advice on TUPE, dismissals and redundancy procedures, or restrictive covenants; the next day you could be seeking technical assistance from our pensions, incentives and tax teams regarding a particularly convoluted bonus structure within an executive's service agreement.

This clearly is a department which provides a good variety of work that help you develop a broad range of skills – yes, you’ll see some black-letter law, but you will also learn to look at the bigger picture!

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A seat in employment

It is the “people" element of the work which often attracts lawyers to this practice area.
Daniel Hogg, Trainee Solicitor

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