In a nutshell
Employment lawyers guide their clients through workplace-related legislation and are intimately involved in the relationship between employers and employees. The divide between employers’ and employees’ lawyers is often clear-cut so bear this in mind when you pick your firm. Most will work either largely for employers or largely for employees; a few will straddle both sides of the fence. Usually, the job includes both advisory work and litigation.
Disputes are almost always resolved at an Employment Tribunal, or before reaching one, and appeals are heard at the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). The grievances leading to litigation fall into the following broad categories: redundancy, unlawful dismissal, breach of contract, harassment and discrimination. This last type of claim can be brought on the grounds of race, religious or philosophical belief, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age.
There are also employment-related cases with a commercial tint to them, such as rows over team moves between major businesses. These are heard in the courts rather than the Employment Tribunals.
What lawyers do
- Advise clients on whether they have suffered unlawful or unfair treatment and establish the amount to be claimed. This will either be capped or, in the case of discrimination, can include additional elements to cover loss of earnings, injury to feelings and aggravated damages.
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support the claim.
- Try to negotiate a payment from the employer or take the matter to tribunal. If there is a breach-of-contract element to the claim, it might be heard in a court rather than a tribunal.
- If the matter does reach tribunal, the solicitor may conduct the advocacy.
- Defend or settle the sorts of claims described above.
- Negotiate employment contracts or exit packages for senior staff.
- Negotiate with unions to avoid or resolve industrial disputes.
- Formulate HR policies and provide training on how to avoid workplace problems.
Realities of the job
- You quickly develop an understanding of human foibles. By their very nature employment cases are filled with drama.
- Clients may assume your role is to provide emotional support as well as legal advice, so you need to take care to define your role appropriately.
- Solicitors who want to do their own advocacy thrive here, although barristers are commonly used for high-stakes or complicated hearings and trials.
- The work is driven by the procedural rules and timetable of the tribunals and courts.
- The law is extensive and changes frequently. You'll read more than your fair share of new rules and regulations.
- Post Brexit reform - the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is still under review. With many UK employee protections originating from the European Union, Brexit’s impact on employment law is still being felt in the UK. This bill proposes that any European Union (EU) employment laws that have been retained since Brexit will come to an end on December 31, 2023. This includes significant legislation such as the Working Time Regulations and the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations, which are currently integrated into the UK legal system. The purpose is to review these laws and decide whether to keep them, replace them with new domestic legislation, or allow them to expire automatically at the end of the year.
- The current state of the UK labour market shows a rise in unemployment, a decrease in job vacancies, and a slowdown in jobs growth. These trends coincide with an increase in the number of people seeking employment. However, the Guardian notes that it's important to view these developments as early indicators rather than definitive evidence of a significant decline in job demand.
- As of January 2021, the UK introduced a points-based immigration system, marking the end of free movement as dictated by the terms of EU membership. To be eligible for a visa, applicants must have 70 'points'. These are determined by various criteria: for example, speaking English 'to the required level' is worth 10 points, and a salary of £25,600 or above merits 20 points. The government has proposed some changes for 2022 which will make it easier for companies to employ international employees. This includes streamlining the sponsor application by moving it fully online, reducing the wait times by four weeks and removing the cap on skilled workers.
- The government has introduced a High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa in May 2022. This unsponsored visa allows holders to work in almost any job, or stay in the UK for at least two years whilst they look for work. To be eligible, applicants must have obtained a qualification from an ‘eligible university’ within the last five years;; a list of the these universities can be found in the Home Office Global Universities List. Qualifications must be equivalent to 1) a UK bachelor’s degree, 2) a UK postgraduate degree, 3) a UK PhD or doctorate.
- According to the Times, 2023 data indicates that there has been limited advancement in narrowing the gender pay gap in recent years. Approximately 80% of companies still exhibit a disparity, with male employees receiving higher average pay than their female counterparts. The latest government data reveals that sectors such as banking and education have significant gender pay gaps. In the banking sector, women earn, on average, 22% less than their male colleagues. Additionally, the gender pay gap in the education sector has increased by 0.9% since the previous report.
- According to the High Pay Centre, a thinktank advocating for equitable pay, by 2pm on the third working day of the year, a chief executive of a company listed on the FTSE 100 index will have earned more per hour than the annual salary of a typical UK worker.
- The UK Government's proposal to grant employees the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment, rather than waiting for 26 weeks, is expected to lead to a surge in flexible working requests. However, CIPD research indicates that nearly half of the organizations surveyed did not know of these upcoming changes. These changes are set to correct a misconception that flexible and hybrid working arrangements are only suitable for certain industries. It also opens up other types of flexibility such as different start and finish times, job-sharing and shift swapping.
- As debates continue to swirl surrounding zero-hours and flexible contracts, in February 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers should be entitled to worker status, giving them minimum wage, holiday pay, pension rights, sick pay and more. There are some caveats for things like pension contributions, with drivers having to complete a certain number of hours in the year. The drivers in this landmark class action employment case were represented by Leigh Day.
- Faced with increasing uncertainty surrounding profits and staff layoffs, online-only media organisations are beginning to unionise. Led by outlets such as Buzzfeed and Vice UK, growing encouragement for the industry at large to follow suit is intensifying as precarious working conditions plague online journalism. In a surprising move within the media landscape, reporters at the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica announced their decision to unionize in 2023. This development reflects a broader trend of labour organizing taking hold in the journalism industry, extending its reach to unexpected corners.
- If there’s one thing Londoners and people across the UK have become accustomed to in 2022, it’s strike action. June 21, 23, and 25 saw the biggest rail strike in 30 years. More than 40,000 Network Rail staff (in addition to London Underground staff) took industrial action over disputes in pay, pensions, and working conditions.
- On the topic of strike action, August 2022 saw criminal barristers in England and Wales vote to strike indefinitely starting September 5. This comes in response to concerns around pay and legal aid cuts.
- The Carer's Leave Bill has been presented to parliament and is anticipated to go through all the necessary stages in 2023. This legislation aims to establish carer's leave as an entitlement from the very first day of employment, enabling workers to take unpaid leave to attend to or organize care for a dependent who requires long-term assistance.
- July 2022 saw the government publish its response to ‘Menopause and the workplace: how to enable fulfilling working lives.’ This comes amid the rise of conversations surrounding the debilitating symptoms caused by menopause, highlighted by the likes of Michelle Obama and Gwyneth Paltrow. The commissioned report suggested, among other things, the need for the Equality Act 2010 to be reviewed to provide increased job protection for those experiencing menopause, although some claims may be covered by the three protected characteristics outlined in the Act, in addition to the Health and Safety Act 1974. The government subsequently found any changes to the Employment Act would be unnecessary. Regardless, the Employment Tribunal saw a 44% rise in menopause-related claims between 2020 and 2021. Companies have been encouraged to put policies in place to support employees affected by menopause.
- One such example is NatWest’s menopause support platform, made available for employees through the Peppy health app. The app aims to provide access to support for staff of menopausal age and their partners. Rolled out in the UK and Ireland in 2022, the bank intends to eventually offer the program globally.