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Law firms have always been a good source of precedent-setting cases in theemployment field.For example, one small firm's failure to take on a black secretaryprovided interesting case law on the burden of proof in discrimination lawcases.Or when a larger firm argued at a tribunal hearing that it was only liablefor claims of sexual harassment if the harassment took place "in the courseof employment" (Sex Discrimination Act 1975) and not at the Christmasparty. The firm lost its case.Or when an employee had to leave their firm after persistent requests to bemoved out of an office full of cigarette smoke were ignored by themanagement.In the US, one of the biggest sexual harassment claims - until the mostrecent staggering $20m award in the motor sector - involved a global lawfirm.It is difficult for the profession to complain about the application oflaws from which many of its members make a good living.Notwithstanding the headline-grabbing cases, the profession has been ableto rely on the natural reluctance of employees to complain. But for howmuch longer?The prospect of unlimited damages for discrimination claims has beenaround for a few years now.However, it is only recently that we have seen the full impact of thischange in certain sectors, particularly in the financial industry whererumours of seven-figure settlements have been banded around.Such high potential awards can make the difference between someone feelingthey have been passed over for promotion or been "eased out".And with the reforms in the Employment Relations Act there are furthershocks in store for every employer, including law firms.The act is one of the most far-reaching legislative steps this governmenthas taken and is, in its way, far more radical than anything Mrs Thatcherattempted in her early years.From October will law firms be welcoming trade union officials intodisciplinary hearings, one of the new rights for the employee in the act?Are firms prepared to give key assistants long "parental" time off as wellas maternity leave?Has the profession got its head around compliance with the 48-hour workingweek? Are practices prepared for the u50,000 unfair dismissal claim?And have management communicated their equal opportunity policies toeveryone and stood by them? And are they thinking about how to consult withall their people in anticipation of increased statutory obligations to doso?This change will impact on the legal profession as much as any otheremployer so is it not now time to examine our souls?
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