Most of my peers in law school had no idea what kind of law they would practice when they applied to law school. Along the way, they eventually determined their desired field of practice, and some of them discovered it was in employment. I, on the other hand, chose to go to law school specifically so I could practice employment law, after studying human resources and labor relations in college. I knew from the beginning what I wanted and tailored my law school experience accordingly. Whether you know what you want to do before even applying, or discover your passion late in your 2L year, there are several ways to curate your law school experience to become an employment attorney.
Employment law encompasses quite a broad range of practice areas: workplace discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage and hour violations, whistleblowing, and disability accommodations are some of the most well-known. Employment attorneys also practice in transactional and regulatory areas, such as developing workplace policies, drafting employment handbooks, drafting and negotiating employment agreements, and negotiating severance packages. This work often involves business counseling on long-term issues, such as implementing certain new employment regulations, to expedited issues, like quickly creating a work-from-home policy at the outset of the COVID pandemic. Tied to business counseling are other services, such as workplace investigations and workplace trainings on creating a harassment-free environment.
Learning about several areas of employment law while in law school is beneficial. It will help you better determine which area you would like to specialize in and how you want to develop your skills. While this may sound obvious, if your school offers employment law-related classes, take as many as you can. I attended Chicago-Kent College of Law, which offers a certificate program in labor and employment law, so I took courses in employment discrimination, employment relationships, privacy rights in employment, employee benefits law and litigation, employment-based legal writing, labor law, and a plaintiff-side employment clinic. If your school doesn’t offer employment-related classes, take classes that teach transferable knowledge and skills that will benefit you in practice later. Courses such as negotiations (used heavily in employment mediations and arbitrations) or general legal writing courses (legal research and general legal writing will always come in handy) are good choices.
Developing practical experience by clerking at an employment law firm is one of the best ways to prepare for a career in employment law. I started clerking at Prinz during my second year of law school and I remember feeling great when I could apply the employment law knowledge I was learning in my classes to my assignments with the firm, like drafting complaints and assisting with the discovery process. On the flip side, clerking at Prinz has helped me in my employment law classes. For example, in my privacy rights in employment course, I chose to write my seminar paper about private-sector employee access to personnel files in Illinois, partly because I was familiar with the contents of employee personnel files and the process of obtaining and reviewing them through assisting attorneys at Prinz.
While many employment law firms specialize in either plaintiff-side work representing employees or defense-side work representing employers, The Prinz Law Firm specializes in both. This is something that really drew me to the firm as a law clerk, and now as an associate attorney, for several reasons. Representing clients on both sides and understanding the litigation process from both a management and employee point-of-view makes you a more versatile employment attorney.
It helps better anticipate arguments that an opposing party may use. It also helps you understand business costs and concerns for employers as well as personal/individual costs of litigation.
Learning about other people’s experiences in the field is another useful way to prepare yourself while still in school. Students sometimes believe that they are too fresh to meet seasoned professionals, but nothing could be further from the truth. Attend events hosted by bar associations and other professional organizations (they often welcome law students), such as the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), and form connections with practicing attorneys. If you’re lucky, you might gain some wise advice, or even make a connection that lands you your first job. You can also ask your law school’s career services office to connect you with alumni who practice in the field. Many alumni are more than happy to speak with students about their career path and give them advice on how to define and reach their goals. Also consider connecting with other students pursuing employment law. You will likely be able to swap resources and build each other up.
Lastly, stay abreast with current events and changes in employment law by subscribing to e-mail newsletters and following relevant social accounts. It’s important to know not only what’s happening in the employment law field in your community, but nationally as well. Several law firms and other organizations in Chicago publish weekly or monthly newsletters (including The Prinz Law Firm) that discuss recent legal changes and what’s happening in the field. Also try to stay on top of workplace trends and concerns, from “quiet quitting” to return-to-office mandates. Socials are some of the best places to keep an eye on these things.
Law school can sometimes feel like a sucker punch, but leaning on others and availing yourself of the plentiful resources that surround you can help you discover and explore your passion. And remember, it’s never too early—or too late—to explore your options in employment law! Now, get to work!