Employment law encompasses the legal rights and responsibilities that arise out of the employer-employee relationship. It evolved from the more narrow practice of labor law, which traditionally dealt only with conflicts involving labor unions. Today, employers are held accountable to a complex system of federal and state laws regarding everything from hiring and firing to maternity leave and drug testing. Employment law attorneys play an important role by helping employers comply with these laws and by helping employees vindicate their workplace rights.

Employment law attorneys handle cases that involve allegations of employment discrimination, civil rights violations, breach of employment contracts and covenants not to compete, office libel, wrongful discharge, unfair labor practices, violations of employee privacy, union grievances, workers' compensation claims, and workplace harassment, among other issues that arise on the job. Some attorneys focus their practice on Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) matters due to the statute's complexity. Other employment law attorneys concentrate their practice on the transactional aspects of workplace relationships, counseling employers on ways to comply with employment laws and draft policies and contracts that are meant to prevent the need for litigation. "It can be a very, very diverse practice, which is what I enjoy," says Eric Barnum '94, who represents employers as a partner at Schiff Hardin in Atlanta, "It's exciting."

Employment law is a client-centered practice area. Attorneys in this field must dedicate a significant amount of time to counseling their clients and keeping them informed of developments in their cases. On any given day, they might also draft legal documents (such as letters, briefs, memoranda, and position papers), conduct discovery, respond to discovery requests, prepare for trial, appear in court or in front of an administrative agency, or participate in negotiations. Examples of administrative agencies before which employment law attorneys commonly appear are the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and state bureaus of employment services and workers' compensation. Arbitration and mediation are regularly used to resolve employment-related disputes, so employment law attorneys must also be comfortable participating in these forms of dispute resolution.

Professional Resources

  • This website was designed to help employers and employees gain an understanding of employment and labor laws. It presents these laws in an easy-to-read, practical format that may be helpful to students who want to acquaint themselves with this area of practice.
  • AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions. It offers a number of resources for those interested in working with unions. Becoming involved with the AFL-CIO is also a good way to demonstrate an interest in labor law to potential employers.
  • Visit the AFL-CIO website for information on their summer law student internship program (go to "About Us" and then select "Law Student Union Summer"). The internship includes a weekly stipend.