University: University of Manchester
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.
No two days are the same for Rachel Mathieson. Although she was initially attracted to this area of the law by its logical framework, it’s the human element that really excites and energises her. “Adding a human interaction to a methodical approach adds a degree of unpredictability and chaos to the job,” she explains. “I worked on several employment cases during my training contract and have been wedded to the area ever since.”
After her law degree and training contract at a small firm – “it gave me excellent access to work and responsibility” – Rachel joined Bates Wells as an employment solicitor in 2016. “I’ve always wanted to be a solicitor rather than a barrister,” she says. “My attraction to the law is about the people and the long-term relationships. I love that as a solicitor you work on cases with the client that can last for years and you are with them every step of the way. It means I’m able to build a real rapport with my clients.”
Birth to death of employment relationship
The work of an employment lawyer involves everything from the beginning of the employment relationship (eg, drafting contracts and offer letters and assisting with the recruitment process to ensure it’s compatible with the Equality Act 2010); to any issues that might occur on a day-to-day basis and, finally, if there needs to be a termination of employment, including any litigation that might arise.
Throw in a healthy dose of corporate transaction work that might include elements of TUPE – Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations – and employee due diligence and it’s fair to say that the job is a real mixed bag. “Most employment lawyers do both contentious and non-contentious work,” says Rachel. “I’ve been qualified for five years and new challenges and facts come up every day. It’s true that no two cases are the same!”
A changing world
Those looking to enter into this area should recognise the gig economy as a key issue affecting the work of employment lawyers. Last year Rachel was successful in advising Uber drivers in the worker status claim against Uber. “It was definitely a highlight!” she says. “Winning at the Court of Appeal was very exciting and rewarding.”
Rachel explains how cases like these – and issues revolving around employment status more broadly – are impacting on her work and the industry as a whole: “It’s not that the legal principles have changed, but the way in which our modern economy operates is constantly evolving. The challenge for lawyers and organisations is working out how to fit new businesses and technologies – and the way they work and interact with individuals – into the legal framework.” With the economy having changed considerably over recent years, employment status is a big issue that many of Rachel’s clients are taking advice on.
Rachel also mentions the significance of the Me Too movement which has seen many historical complaints emerge. “I can see a real stark difference today – organisations are taking these complaints very seriously and wanting to ensure that these practices do not continue to happen in their workplaces,” she comments. The world waits to see how else employment law – and employee employer relations – might change in the wake of this movement.
For Rachel, the best part of the job is getting to use her brain in a different way every day. “You can never just turn up to work and coast through the day,” she laughs. “There’s always something new to learn and the law is changing constantly. I love the challenge and the intellectual stimulation that every case brings.”
Aspiring lawyers should make sure to keep up to date with legal issues in the news. “The law is always going to be in the headlines,” Rachel says. “It’s up to students to track how a case develops and follow the key issues that are affecting the profession. Keep a broad mind and make sure you’re not cutting yourself off to interesting or relevant stories.”
Rachel recommends that students start early in their career research, explaining that it wasn’t until the end of her second year at university that she realised just how tight the recruitment timelines are. To avoid a similar last-minute panic, students should be thinking about their career in their first year. “All universities will have legal advice centres where you can volunteer,” Rachel recommends. “That will give you a flavour of what the law will be like in practice. It’s a great opportunity to interact with clients and do legal research, plus a good way to see if you find the work itself interesting.”
What skills should students focus on in order to succeed in this area of the law? As well as citing an analytical mindset and patience as important attributes, Rachel is firm on the significance of people skills for budding employment lawyers: “We work with employers and employees at often stressful and upsetting times in their lives. If someone has lost their job or been accused of something, you need to have empathy, but you should also maintain a professional relationship to lead them through the difficult legal issues.”
Ultimately, practising law is much more interesting than studying for the degree, Rachel is keen to reassure. “I found my undergraduate degree quite unrelated to what I do now in practice, and it made me question if I wanted to pursue a career in law,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to get experience and see the real-life application of your studies. I absolutely love working as a solicitor and have no regrets about my decision.”