Bust Is a Boom for Employment Lawyers
California Lawyer

Bust Is a Boom for Employment Lawyers

April 2009

Illustration by March Rosenthal

You'd expect the slumping economy to provide plenty of new business for employment and labor attorneys. But Todd Schneider's experience shows just how much new work such lawyers are getting.

A typical month for Schneider - a partner at San Francisco's Schneider Wallace Cottrell Brayton Konecky - includes the intake and processing of about 400 employment inquiries. In December, he says, his staff handled about 1,500. Adding to the usual mix of discrimination allegations involving age, gender, race or sex, there are also increased complaints over 401(k) fiduciary responsibility and the Worker Adjustment, Retraining and Notification Act. (WARN governs the notice large employers are required to give to terminated employees.)

"As the layoffs began to hit white-collar workers, we began to get more calls," Schneider says. "And we don't see other employment firms as being rivals, because there is plenty of work to go around."

Indeed, recent figures from San Francisco-based LegalMatch, an online attorney-referral service, indicate as much. Comparing December 2008 to the previous year, LegalMatch saw 38 percent more referrals for employment discrimination, 36 percent more inquiries alleging wrongful termination, 26 percent more wage-and-overtime cases, and 17 percent more pension or benefit disputes.

"September was when I began feeling it," says Julie A. Vogelzang, a partner at the San Diego offices of Duane Morris. "By November it was a quickly moving wave." As year-end requirements for companies to state profits and losses loomed, Vogelzang says, she spent an extra two hours each day counseling clients on the most prudent ways to terminate personnel.

In all of this extra work, the key challenge for employment lawyers may simply be to keep up with demand. Duane Morris hired Vogelzang and two other employment attorneys at its San Diego office earlier in 2008 to handle the rise in employment cases. Littler Mendelson added a full 20 to its San Francisco roster during 2008.

"As someone who was recently surveying the job market, I can tell you that right now there certainly is demand for employment lawyers," says Annette M. Rittmuller, a recently hired senior counsel at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis in San Francisco. Baldwin J. Lee, a partner with the firm, adds that "competition is intense" for attorneys proficient in the latest changes to federal, state, and municipal laws affecting the workplace. To woo such lawyers, Lee says that even in the depressed economy "we've really had to emphasize being flexible about schedules."

And the seller's market for employment lawyers may continue. Thanks to anticipated changes in minimum-wage law and many recent workplace changes - such as municipal ordinances concerning health insurance and family-leave time - many firms expect the current employment law boom to outlast the recession. Plus, there's always a potential boost from the "Obama factor."

"Based on what [President] Obama said during the campaign, employers need to keep an eye on the future, and on developments coming out of Congress," says Jennifer Walt, one of the new employment law associates at Littler.

"We potentially could be seeing a huge change in the face of labor and employment law, not just state but also federal law."

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