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.
- To prevent mass waves of unemployment as a result of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, the government rolled out The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in March 2020. The government supported registered employers by providing furloughed employees with financial support of up to 80% of their salary, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month per employee. As of August 16, there were 9.6 million jobs furloughed with the total value of claims made at £35.4 billion.
- Employees of small and micro-sized employers were more likely to have been furloughed than those working for medium-sized and large employers: 57% of employments at employers with 5 to 9 employees had been furloughed against just 19% at employers with 250 or more employees according to polling by YouGov. They also found that the accommodation and food services sectors had the highest proportion of employers furloughing at least some staff, at a massive 87%.
- Anticipating a potential huge wave of redundancies as the CJRS scheme comes to an end in October, the government has announced its Job Retention Bonus scheme, offering a one-off payment of £1,000 to UK employers for every furloughed employee who remains continuously employed through to the end of January 2021.
- Brexit could potentially still have a big impact on employment law, as many employee protections derive from the European Union. However, EU employment rules do not apply to the UK directly. Instead they are part of UK law either through secondary legislation or Acts of Parliament. They have often been adapted to the UK context too. For example, the well-known Working Time Directive, which grants EU citizens a statutory right to 20 days of paid leave, in the UK provides for 28 days of leave (including bank holidays). Legal experts believe that such laws are too deeply embedded in statute to be easily rewritten, which in turn sets a pretty high political barrier to repealing them.
- As of January 2021, the UK will introduce 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 gender pay gap has dominated employment press in the last few years: reporting for companies of over 250 people began in 2016 as a result of the Equality Act 2010. April 2018 was the initial deadline for private sector employers, and figures showed more than three-quarters of UK companies pay men more on average than women.
- Similar measures came into effect from early 2019 regarding top earners. Large UK-listed companies are now required to declare the pay disparity between executives and average employees, disclosing ratios, and justifying stakeholder interests when declaring pay.
- As debates continue to swirl surrounding zero-hours and flexible contracts, the government's Good Work Plan seeks to safeguard and strengthen employment rights. Set out in December 2018, the extensive and wide-ranging reforms include proposals such as: the right for an employee to request a more predictable contract after 26 weeks of employment; more substantive fines for malicious employers; and the right for employees to know details of their work-based rights from the first day in the job. Coupling this, workers could receive compensation for cancelled shifts when on zero-hours or flexible contracts. The introduction of legislation had been delayed by the Brexit process.
- There could be huge implications for the gig economy as Uber’s five-year battle determining whether its workers are entitled to basic employment protections reached the Supreme Court in summer 2020. If unsuccessful, the company could be forced to pay out millions in compensation and restructure their entire business model. Stay tuned.
- 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 are intensifying as precarious working conditions plague online journalism.