Square Mile

Law firms have always been a good source of precedent-setting cases in the

employment field.

For example, one small firm's failure to take on a black secretary

provided interesting case law on the burden of proof in discrimination law

cases.

Or when a larger firm argued at a tribunal hearing that it was only liable

for claims of sexual harassment if the harassment took place "in the course

of employment" (Sex Discrimination Act 1975) and not at the Christmas

party. The firm lost its case.

Or when an employee had to leave their firm after persistent requests to be

moved out of an office full of cigarette smoke were ignored by the

management.

In the US, one of the biggest sexual harassment claims – until the most

recent staggering $20m award in the motor sector – involved a global law

firm.

It is difficult for the profession to complain about the application of

laws from which many of its members make a good living.

Notwithstanding the headline-grabbing cases, the profession has been able

to rely on the natural reluctance of employees to complain. But for how

much longer?

The prospect of unlimited damages for discrimination claims has been

around for a few years now.

However, it is only recently that we have seen the full impact of this

change in certain sectors, particularly in the financial industry where

rumours of seven-figure settlements have been banded around.

Such high potential awards can make the difference between someone feeling

they have been passed over for promotion or been "eased out".

And with the reforms in the Employment Relations Act there are further

shocks in store for every employer, including law firms.

The act is one of the most far-reaching legislative steps this government

has taken and is, in its way, far more radical than anything Mrs Thatcher

attempted in her early years.

From October will law firms be welcoming trade union officials into

disciplinary hearings, one of the new rights for the employee in the act?

Are firms prepared to give key assistants long "parental" time off as well

as maternity leave?

Has the profession got its head around compliance with the 48-hour working

week? Are practices prepared for the u50,000 unfair dismissal claim?

And have management communicated their equal opportunity policies to

everyone and stood by them? And are they thinking about how to consult with

all their people in anticipation of increased statutory obligations to do

so?

This change will impact on the legal profession as much as any other

employer so is it not now time to examine our souls?