Gainfully employed

Previously the domain of the female lawyer, employment law was sneered at by corporate lawyers and ignored by City firms. Mark Brandon reports on the change and highlights the sector's most prominent lawyers and law firms

Fraser Younson: moved from Baker & McKenzie to McDermott Will & Emery

Just a few years ago, employment law was not very fashionable. In fact, it was so unfashionable that there were no separate employment law departments and no lawyer worth their salt went into it. Well, that's what the corporate department thought.

As little as 10 years ago, employment law was seen as a discipline colonised primarily by women (again, with attendant sneers from corporate lawyers about how “easy” it was and how it responded better to a feminine touch), helped along by some impressive female personalities in the area (see page 29).

But the 1990s changed all that. The transformation began in the 1980s, when the subject of collective rights exploded onto the scene as the Conservative government began dismantling and reconstructing various parts of the economy, with trade unions in the firing line.

Collective disputes such as the miners' strike and Wapping left scars in the minds of many workers, but saw employment lawyers active as never before on both sides of the disputes.

Compulsory competitive tendering of public services saw some unscrupulous companies try to take on public sector workers and squeeze profits out of pay cuts and sackings, only to be halted in their tracks by the rise of another employment law phenomenon, Tupe (transfer of undertakings and protection of employment rights).

Following legislation in the 1970s, discrimination – particularly on the grounds of race and gender – became a hot topic.

Discrimination on the grounds of maternity not only created some headline-hitting cases, but also made companies revisit their policies and procedures. The success of the cases and the rise of human rights on the European stage encouraged opponents of discrimination on the grounds of age and sexual orientation to take on cases, with mixed success.

In recent times, the subject of part-time workers – particularly with regard to pensions provision and other benefits – has come to the fore. And the recent uplift on the compensation cap for unfair dismissal has led to increased activity and awareness on the part of employers as to proper disciplinary and performance procedures.

The number of employment lawyers has risen with this tide of activity. Most major law firms now have fully-fledged employment departments and more young lawyers are interested in getting into the area. Meanwhile, the employment bar has flourished on the back of the litigation boom (see page 31).

This boom created very different employment practices among firms. Every serious firm has to have one – whether a separate department or not – but they differ from each other. When a client says that they need an employment lawyer, the automatic response should be, 'yes, but what kind?'

While firms point to this survey or that survey to prove that they are “top”, most clients profess ignorance about the services offered by firms other than the ones they use. Some do not even know about the services provided by their own law firms. Many are unaware of how much difference there actually can be between supposedly similar firms.

Ask most lawyers in private practice which firm is best for employment law, and they would probably choose either Baker & McKenzie or Simmons & Simmons, depending on their own personal experience.

Both firms are quality operators, with strength in depth, great intellectual resource and an enviable reputation. Baker & McKenzie has a fantastic international network, but does not do individual work and lost its head of department last year. Simmons & Simmons has a more modest international offering but perhaps more gravitas, although it might wish sometimes that it did not have such a reputation for individual work, given the difficulties individuals present in this contentious and emotionally-charged arena.

Below those two in the London cream of the crop bunch are Fox Williams, Rowe & Maw and McDermott Will & Emery. Gutsy Fox Williams inspires strong reactions at both ends of the client spectrum and Rowe & Maw is excellent, if slightly partner-light. McDermotts is a rising star and has a great partner in Baker & McKenzie's former head of employment Fraser Younson. It also has serious investment and a refreshing commercial edge that makes this Chicago-based firm a real contender from a standing start last year.

Elsewhere in the London market there are several staff changes worth noting. One of the highest profile moves was that of Georgina Keane from Richards Butler to Lawrence Graham, while Karen Seward moved from the London office of Pinsent Curtis to Allen & Overy. Warner Cranston continues to rebuild to good effect after a couple of shattering blows, including the loss of David Dalgarno to McDermotts. Stephen Levinson moved from Paisner & Co to KLegal, the law firm associated with accountant KPMG.

Firms such as Eversheds and Pinsent Curtis would probably argue that they combine the top quality of those firms with the broad-ranging bread and butter practice of the regions. Pinsent Curtis is perhaps more top-end, although the loss of key partner Karen Seward from its London office is a blow. Eversheds, while significantly outstripping all the others in terms of size, continues to battle with the issue of managing consistency of service across such a huge group.

Battling hard against these firms are DLA and Hammond Suddards. DLA is not to be underestimated, despite its rather poor image in the legal profession. Happy clients are a powerful driver, and both clients and quality of work are beyond the slurs of its competitors. Hammonds is an odd combination – a powerful regional player, but with a London practice focused almost exclusively on the square mile, and home to the Insider's Guide to Legal Services: Employment clients' choice award winner, David Whincup (see page 29). The addition of Edge Ellison to the Hammonds' offering is a powerful combination in employment law.

Behind them in the national stakes are Osborne Clarke and Morgan Cole, which have good reputations and some fine individual practitioners, although both need to work on their profile in employment law. Some of the other major regionals – such as Addleshaw Booth & Co and Wragge & Co – are still playing catch-up, but have growing reputations.

Elsewhere in the regions there is quality in smaller firms, even where the national firms dominate – for instance Cobbetts and Pannone & Partners in Manchester, Mace & Jones in Liverpool, and Mills & Reeve in East Anglia. In Scotland, Dundas & Wilson and Maclay Murray & Spens shine in particular. Both have the Scottish end of the blue chip market and some fine individuals.

There is a sprinkling of decent niche employment law firms, including Langley & Co and Doyle Clayton in England and Mackay Simon in Scotland. Although not a niche player, the tiny employment department of international firm Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn is also worth a mention.

The City gets quite a bashing in all this. Employment, by its very nature, is a strongly commercial discipline which is delivered in a personal way – two attributes not often associated with the big corporate firms. Of the top five City firms, only Clifford Chance and Freshfields volunteered any information when researching for the Insider's Guide.

Meanwhile, client commentary on Linklaters & Alliance in particular is stinging, with disappointment voiced with regard both to the London service and the European network.

Clifford Chance and Freshfields fared somewhat better, perhaps due to their continuing dedication to the area, but both have serious perception issues to address. Interestingly, they came up unprompted as “employment experts” in the guide's random survey of employment clients, with Allen & Overy and Lovells. None of the other top 10 firms (with the exception of Simmons & Simmons) featured (see page 29 ).

It is clear that major City firms need to do more if they are to convincingly practice employment law away from their corporate support work (which they seem to perform exceptionally well). Firms need to work on improving proactivity, commerciality, speed of response and proper client-handling.

In the meantime, it is the specialists that rule the roost in employment law, which, one may say, is as it should be.

Mark Brandon is editor of the Insider's Guide to Legal Services: Employment, which is due out shortly.