Labor law—often referred to as employment law—is a branch of contract law that covers issues arising from the relationship between employer and employee.
From wages and hours to employment discrimination and the regulation of working conditions, labor law covers a gamut of issues, including:
- Wage and hour disputes
- Employer/employee rights and responsibilities
- Disciplinary action and termination
- Compliance with state and federal laws
- Severance agreements
- Unemployment compensation claims
- Workplace harassment
- Employment discrimination (race, gender, religion, age, national origin)
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Contract violations
- Wrongful discharge
Many of the common rights that workers in every industry take for granted these days – from basic safety to living wages – come from precedents established in labor law cases over the past decades. Today, paralegals working in the field are at the forefront of establishing new rights and resolving disputes related to things like minimum wage increases, workplace privacy issues and discrimination.
From Law Firms to In-House Legal Teams – Duties Associated with Labor Law
Labor law paralegals work for law firms involved in suing or defending employers over labor law cases. Just as often, they work directly for companies as part of in-house legal teams where they take on a diverse set of duties:
- Assisting with litigation defense
- Drafting employment law documents (Non-disclosure agreements, Employment offers, Termination documents)
- Creating and managing severance packages
- Assisting in organized labor negotiations
At law firms, labor law paralegals are responsible for preparing basic pleadings, drafting correspondence and other legal documents, filing court documents, and performing similar administrative duties.
As with almost all paralegal positions, labor law paralegals in law firms are the ones who keep the calendar on court cases, ensuring that legal filings happen on time and that all other deadlines are also met. They may conduct initial interviews of potential clients or participate in witness depositions. For courtroom work, they may prepare visual exhibits and assemble reference books for the attorneys working on the case.
Many labor law cases are class action suits, since systemic employer abuses often affect more than one worker. These types of suits are heavily reliant on paralegal shovel work. Paralegals are responsible for:
- Finding potential members of the affected class
- Conducting screening interviews or designing self-screening systems
- Interviewing and recording pertinent data from the class clients
- Running reports from the data to detect underlying trends in employer actions (racial differences in promotion or punishment treatments, for example)
These cases can last for years but the payoff can be worthwhile; Uber drivers brought two class action suits that were recently settled for nearly $30 million.
Labor law paralegals also find employment with unions and other worker advocacy groups. They can participate in contract negotiations on the labor side as well as for employers, and often serve as a resource for union members in need of job-related legal services.
They might also work in lobbying efforts aimed to passing new worker protection laws. With their expertise, they can draft proposals or amendments designed to protect worker’s rights, which may then be used in establishing or amending laws.
Or they may work for government directly. Together, state and federal government employed more than 15 percent of all American workers in 2015 according to Business Insider. That’s a lot of human resources work, not to mention the fact that government employment standards are rigid and often include many employee protections that need to be managed.
And beyond working internally to manage the protections that government employees enjoy, paralegals also often work for government agencies that regulate private sector employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Officer of Labor Management standards all employ labor law paralegals. And, of course, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) looms like the 500-pound gorilla in the room of American labor law.
Employment Disputes at the National Labor Relations Board
Paralegals in labor law are frequently involved in labor disputes that don’t end up in courtrooms. Instead, they often fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, a five-member panel responsible for adjudicating unfair labor practices in the private sector.
The NLRB has massive regulatory power and a paralegal working in any aspect of labor law will find their day-to-day work influenced by NLRB cases and decisions. Of course, many paralegals work for the NLRB directly, performing legal work on behalf of the government itself.
NLRB cases are administrative law cases, conducted before a judge working for the agency and outside the normal Justice Department legal system. The powers and processes involved are similar, but there are no jury trials and the judges are adjudicating regulatory issues, not violations of state or national law.
But NLRB decisions are binding and have far-reaching effects on employment law that any paralegal in the field will have to remain familiar with. Even if they are not directly involved in a major NLRB case, paralegals working in all facets of labor law keep tabs on decisions that will establish or change precedent and affect how they do their jobs.
For example, recent NLRB scrutiny of employer social-media policies has sent paralegals throughout corporate America scrambling to revise internal employee manuals and disciplinary procedures to avoid running afoul of future lawsuits.
Becoming an Employment Law Paralegal
Many paralegal certificate and degree programs offer specialties or concentrations in employment law as optional components. Although they are not a requirement for most labor law paralegal positions, they will certainly help your resume stand out from the pack.
Experience in investigating or coordinating complex cases of any sort will look good to most labor law practices, which seek out class action cases for greater impact. It’s possible to gain experience doing basic office work for firms such as these on major cases, which will later look good when you come back as a paralegal in the field.
Direct experience with the NLRB or other administrative law bodies is also a big plus. Having seen how the wheels work inside the institution, you will be better prepared for working with it in almost any capacity at other agencies or employers. Internships at such agencies are competitive, but also make a big splash on a resume when you later apply for employment law paralegal positions.
Paralegal courses and certification programs in labor allow practicing paralegals to advance their knowledge and competency in this area of law. In particular, NALS, the association for legal professionals, offers a specialty certification in employment law.
Topics covered in these programs include:
- Differences between employment from independent contracting
- Torts brought against employers
- Discrimination in hiring
- Accommodation in working conditions
- Unfair labor practices
- Labor management relations
- Disability discrimination and accommodations
- Labor organizations
- Structures of the National Labor Relations Act and Railway Labor Act
- Constitutional protections against discrimination
And NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, has a personal injury specialty sub-certification in worker’s compensation law that might apply.