A student should begin acquiring labor-related experience during his or her college years. According to most labor practitioners, students should gain this experience with summer jobs either in industry (as a laborer in a factory or in construction, preferably in a union-represented company) or in a social service agency (e.g., unemployment office or community health organization). These jobs teach industrial employee relation skills and give students the opportunity to experience directly the day-to-day activities and needs of a labor environment, in a way that no textbook could ever convey.
Conversely, experience in the personnel or business office of a corporation or manufacturer can provide students with valuable exposure to business finance, counseling, negotiation and general management policies and procedures from the point of view of management. This firsthand experience can provide insights that may prove valuable when the time comes to begin negotiations in actual practice, regardless of the side of the table on which the practitioner finds him/herself.
Once a student has entered law school and has had an opportunity to take courses in labor (electives can be selected in some law schools as early as the first semester of the second year of study), it is then time to seek an internship in either a law firm specializing in labor practice or in a government agency. Because it is useful for students to gain an overview of the practice of labor law from both sides, working with a government agency (such as the National Labor Relations Board or the U.S. Department of Labor) was mentioned by most attorneys surveyed as the preferred first labor law practice experience for students. Working with these agencies, students are afforded the chance to observe issues from both the labor and management perspectives.
Summer internships are offered at the NLRB or the Department of Labor, both in the administrative offices in Washington, D.C., and in field offices throughout the country. These first-hand work experiences provide not only the overview perspective previously mentioned, but provide students with the opportunity to sit in on negotiation sessions and hearings and to work individually with an administrative law attorney.
Many practitioners suggested that a student's first internship experience be with such impartial or neutral agencies as the NLRB or the Department of Justice because of the opportunity the student has to determine which side of labor practice is of more personal interest. A student would then avoid the predicament of having to make a snap decision during a job interview with a labor attorney looking for someone with a commitment to the same values and practice interest.
Although some attorneys in small firms represent unions as well as small businesses (always mindful of issues of conflict of interest), it is more common to find that firms are strongly entrenched in one area of practice or the other. Competitive feelings tend to run high because of the normally adversarial relationship. Students approaching a law firm to request experience as an intern should be aware of which side the firm represents.
In summary, labor attorneys on both sides of the practice say that the best experiences students can obtain to prepare themselves for labor specialty would allow them to gain the following skills:
- The ability to work with people of varying background and levels;
- Excellent writing ability;
- The art of self-expression through persuasion and oral advocacy;
- The development of practical credentials in a labor-related work environment;
- An understanding of the student's own personality through self-assessment, including awareness of how the student interacts with others in a high-stress situation.
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