Employment, pensions & incentives

Employment, pensions & incentives

Grace Malone

Burges Salmon LLP

University: University of Exeter
Degree: Law

Employment lawyers work across all areas of employment law, including, for example, handling discrimination, staff restructuring and whistleblowing issues. There has been increased focus on employment law in recent years, due to a combination of new legislation, government policies and employees’ increased awareness of their rights. Trainees assist with a wide variety of work, such as the employment aspects of corporate or commercial transactions, preparations for tribunal claims, attending hearings and meetings, and helping to draft documents such as employment contracts or policies.

Grace Malone was attracted to the study of law by the flexibility that it affords later down the line: “I always preferred words to science or maths, and thought that law seemed like a sensible undergraduate degree to do. I wasn’t certain I wanted to be a lawyer when I applied for university, but felt that because of its academic nature, a law degree could take you in all sorts of directions.” Going to the Bar was never on the radar: “I was swept up into the training contract application process by my second year and really liked the idea of working in a big firm, with lots of colleagues in a supportive environment.”

Having secured a training contract at Burges Salmon in her second year, Grace relished the chance to learn more about what daily lawyering really means, in a variety of different departments. “It is quite a big annual intake of trainees, around 20 to 25, and I liked the fact that you were surrounded by people at the same stage as you, forming friendships from the very beginning,” Grace reflects. “Also, our six-seat system means that you get to try a large number of different areas within the two years. You are given enough responsibility, without it being overwhelming; there is a real focus on ensuring trainees get lots from the training experience and work out where their skills lie, rather than more senior lawyers expecting you to be perfect. The firm wants you to get a sense of what lies ahead after qualification.”

Grace’s second seat was in employment, where she first formed an opinion on what the practice area could offer and whether it might suit her career aspirations: “I enjoyed all my seats and there were aspects of them all that I would have enjoyed if I had qualified there. I was drawn to employment, however, because it is a 'people-based' area. The style of advising is different to other areas – the issues are often very pressing, sensitive or reputational, and there are lots of daily conversations and meetings with clients. I really like the story and human element of it; it is all very tangible and relatable, which I think makes it easier to get your teeth into as a junior lawyer.”

Employment work at the firm is a varied mix of contentious and non-contentious work, which keeps things interesting for practitioners. “We do advisory work, such as guiding clients through a restructure or reorganisation, or assisting with tricky grievance or disciplinary scenarios” describes Grace. “We also support our commercial, pensions or corporate teams with transactions that they’re working on – for example, the employment elements of an outsourcing deal. On the contentious side, we help to manage clients’ tribunal claims, mostly acting for the employer. A claim might be related to whistleblowing or disability or sex discrimination, for example.”

Second to none

Both as a trainee and since qualification, Grace has benefited from the professional opportunities that come with going on client secondments: “Last year I was seconded to a business to help with a specific project, a large-scale redundancy. It was really interesting to be based within a projects team because you realise the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes – I had good visibility of what it means to implement the advice we give, and an appreciation for the complexities of decision making and administering such a project. Now, when I give advice, I can picture that all going on in the background. What different clients do with our advice, how it is implemented, some of the different business drivers – if you can get a handle on how different businesses operate, then you can advise your clients much better.”

Developing the ability to offer timely and strategic advice can be hard for junior lawyers: “One of the most difficult things as a junior lawyer is that there are a lot of grey areas in employment. Often you are giving your view on the best strategic option to get your client to where they want to go and that can be hard before you have a sufficient breadth of experience. It doesn’t take long to see similar scenarios and have an idea of what to do though, and there are always more senior lawyers around to ask what their view is.”

Employment law is also a very fast-moving area compared to some others, because it is heavily case-law driven, so Grace urges the need to keep updated and on top of trends – many of which appear in the national press: “Because the issues are relatable and interesting, employment law gets a lot of coverage in the press. ‘Hot topics’ recently have been the calculation of holiday pay, gender pay reporting and a focus on the status of gig economy workers. There are always consultations and case law to keep on top of – you can’t rest on your laurels!”

“I really like the story and human element of employment law; it is all very tangible and relatable, which I think makes it easier to get your teeth into as a junior lawyer”

Have you got skills?

Grace reiterates the need to hone your people skills in this very human and emotional field of law: “You have to be personable and able to relate to people; the issues involved are often more sensitive than in other areas of law. You also need empathy; it’s very important to understand what drives individuals. For example, in a tribunal claim if you can understand what is driving both of the parties, there may be a way to resolve things quickly and commercially rather than going through the entire hearing process.”

Commerciality is also essential: “Each client has different drivers and appetites for risk – for example, some clients may be unionised, or reputation may be very important to them, and maintaining good employee relations and avoiding criticism will be their primary motivator. Compare that to other businesses where cost may be the ultimate driver. You have to be able to step into your client’s shoes and understand what is important to them.” This ties in with the need to grasp that being brilliant at law is only one aspect of being a good lawyer: It is important to listen to what your client wants to achieve and connect that to your advice. It’s not just an understanding of the legislation; you have to appreciate what that advice will be used for. This helps build strong relationships with your clients.”

Grace’s top tips centre on the need to find a firm that is a good match with your aspirations. She explains: “In terms of what you can do to make yourself more marketable, you need to show you have taken time to identify which firms might suit you and why, as opposed to just applying to any firm. You want to end up at a firm that suits you, culture and values wise.

And a reassuring final note: “The job is not as difficult or as different to life as a student as you might expect – you’re working with people who are there to support you and help you develop, and they recognise that it takes time for you to be confident about what you’re doing. You don’t need to be a fully formed lawyer on day one – it’s a much gentler introduction to the career than that.”

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