Labor law refers to the wide-ranging range of laws that administrate the relationships between, and the rights and duties of, employers, employees and labor unions. This encompasses three distinct spheres of law and policy: laws regarding overall aspects of the employer-employee relationship, for example the common law of employment and employee benefits laws; specific statutory frameworks banning discriminatory treatment, i.e. employment discrimination law; and laws relating to labor unions and collective bargaining agreements, i.e. labor law.
The practice of employment law is fairly diverse. For example, the practice of a lawyer who specializes in the area of employment discrimination might be inclined basically towards litigation, whilst that of a labor lawyer might focus his attention on collective bargaining, arbitration, and counseling clients about the pertinent regulatory systems. Labor law is a progressively noteworthy practice area in the public sector, owing to the rise of union membership among government employees. Matters associating labor and employment law also often arise in the practice of lawyers who do not specialize in it, including general practitioners, in-house counsel, business lawyers, non-profit lawyers, and civil rights lawyers.
Although in the past ten years there has been a tremendous growth in the number of attorneys working as in-house counsel for corporations, the practice of labor law is still handled substantially by private practitioners in law firms and by government attorneys. Very few law firms practice labor law exclusively: most have a general practice, with labor law included as one of a variety of compatible practice areas.
The Directory of Employers published by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), lists large firms, corporations, and government agencies nationwide. The listed firms list many of their lawyers as practicing labor law. Some of these firms indicate that they are departmentalized, with labor as one of the departments; others list attorneys who designate themselves full-time labor practitioners by virtue of the percentage of their practice or billable hours devoted to labor relations issues.
All government attorneys administer and enforce labor regulations in a nonpartisan fashion. Many private labor practitioners divide labor law into two very distinct areas of practice: union and management. They often refer to the choice as one between union-side or management-side practice, as though a permanent rectangular table existed with a line drawn down the middle separating the two factions and their lawyers. There are, of course, very real differences between these two sides.
Union-side Labor Practice:
The majority of lawyers who represent unions practice in private law firms of fewer than twenty-five attorneys. They typically practice labor and employment law, unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, and equal employment cases. Some attorneys also have a substantial practice in civil rights, discrimination cases, pension benefits, or health and welfare work.
Most union-side practitioners, practice as substantially union business, for one particular labor union, but also deal with personal injury, workers' compensation, fair representation and pension fund administration cases. Their practice also includes related compatible practice areas that include medical malpractice, probate, and a small number of real estate cases.
The nature of a union practice dictates that most union-side, small private practitioners typically handle other work as well. For example, when a contract is being negotiated, a case is being tried, or a grievance is being arbitrated, the work is intense and easily fills many billable hours. But these do not always constitute a consistently full work load; thus, the time between contract negotiations and other union-related work must be filled with other income-producing cases.
While small private practices are typical, some union-side attorneys do function as in-house counsel for specific, usually large, international unions. These positions are unique; often the attorney becomes responsible not only for all of the labor issues related to the work of the employer, but also for the administration and governance of the union as an employer and service provider. The in-house counsel must often play two roles: as a union representative who negotiates with management, and also as in-house counsel to the nonprofit management structure, i.e., the union. Accordingly, their work is quite varied and can include drafting and administering personnel policies, contract negotiations with health providers for membership services, employment discrimination cases, workers' compensation cases, and at times even bankruptcy.
Firms with a diverse general practice that includes a labor department or specialization serve a variety of kinds of clients, but the chief or most substantial clients are typically one or more unions. The union itself may represent employees in collective bargaining with a private corporation or with a public sector union. One practitioner among those surveyed estimated that virtually half of all union-side labor law is on behalf of public-sector federal, city, state, or municipal employees. The other half involves organized private-sector employees in all aspects of manufacturing, industry, health care and education.
Some of the most intensely contested cases have revolved around whether university faculty can be considered a bargaining unit for collective bargaining purposes, or whether they are, in effect, part of the management or administrative structure, and thus not entitled to union representation. Another kind of client who might consult a union-side attorney is the individual who needs separate representation as the result of a conflict with his or her union, and who therefore cannot be represented by the union's counsel.
Most attorneys surveyed did not feel that the substance of a labor- related practice is greatly affected by the particular client involved. It is, instead, in the specific type of work requested by the client that differences can be observed. Some unions employ attorneys only for litigation, using business agents or union officers for other work. Other unions hire lawyers to handle all labor relations, including negotiations, National Labor Relations Board cases, arbitration, and litigation. As one attorney stated, "Unions, like people, have their own personalities, objectives, and needs."