Employment law has long been seen as a Cinderella specialisation. With a few exceptions, the best-regarded employment departments have bypassed the top City firms and are to be found in medium-sized practices.
Fraser Younson, senior employment partner at Baker & McKenzie and chair of the Employment Lawyers Association, says: “As much as 10 per cent of our work in London is employment and pension-related, but too often employment is perceived at best as a second cousin, and at worst as simply a service function for the corporate or litigation department.”
The problem is that a lot of the work simply is not lucrative enough. Take tribunal work, for example. Since costs are not recoverable, win or lose, and the maximum compensation award is only £11,000, many firms find it impossible to take on because of their overheads. One lawyer comments: “It is sad when you have a client with a good case but you can't do anything for them.”
While employment work may never attract the telephone number sums available in corporate finance, it is nevertheless an expanding field and one that can serve as a good entree for attracting other work.
However, the ability to generate other work shouldn't be overstated. Alasdair Simpson, senior partner at Manches & Co, points out that employment lawyers tend to sell to a personnel department rather than a company's usual buyer of legal services. “As specialist buyers of legal services, they often have their own brief for hiring lawyers,” he says.
But he believes his firm's specialisation in employment law and similar niche areas will help ensure its survival whereas less-focused medium-sized players may go under. Manches is currently expanding its employment department to cope with an increasing workload.
Nevertheless, high-flying employment practitioners are aware of the relative lack of status and difficulty of attaining partnership in this area of law, and several have decided to strike out on their own.
Some employment specialists have chosen to set up as sole practitioners, such as Helen Mason, formerly at Wragge & Co, and Ailsa Wood, who is ex-Lovell White Durrant. Others, such as Jill Andrew at Langley & Co, have joined niche practices.
David Harper, employment partner at Lovells, admits that with opportunities for specialists in the larger firms declining, niche practice may well be an attractive alternative.
Andrew sees a trend towards niche practice in areas such as construction and intellectual property, as well as employment. And her firm is beginning to establish a network with other firms.
“Employment law deserves an identity of its own,” she says. “It used to be seen as soft law, but in fact you have to know more law in this field than virtually any other discipline. There is an awful lot of law kicking around.”
Andrew believes most of the movement of practitioners between firms, or of those setting up on their own, has already occurred. She knows of one big-name move in the offing, but otherwise thinks things have settled down for the foreseeable future.
“There is not as much happening as there was two years ago,” she adds.
Mason, who left Wragges in December 1993, says her motivation was to spend more time with her family. She also wanted more flexibility and was disillusioned with working at a large firm.
“It was very difficult to take the plunge and it would have been even harder if we had not had a second income in the family,” she says.
But in the long term, she believes she will be better off: “By my third year, I will catch up with what I was on at Wragges.”
She hopes to expand in six months' time and take on a fee earner; she believes the secret to success in the employment sector is to recruit and keep the best people.
Mason thinks employment work has definitely gained in status: “It has dawned on people how difficult a specialisation it actually is.” She adds: “General practitioners who dabble are the profession's worst enemy.”
Wood has only been in sole practice since February, having done spells at Warner Cranston and, more recently, Lovells. Unlike Mason, she left the firm for professional reasons, believing she could only provide top notch advice in sole practice. “As a sole practitioner, you can entirely control the quality of work,” she says. “The nature of employment work suits a sole practitioner. A lot of the work is advisory and can be done via a fax. You simply don't need the back-up of a large firm as you might do in other areas.”
“Also, with the nature of employment law being very sensitive, as you may well be dealing with board disputes or large-scale redundancies, it is paramount that the client can trust you. With a sole practitioner, the client knows who they're getting.”
Wood says another advantage of being a sole practitioner is that you can cut administration down to a minimum so there is more time to focus on clients' needs.
“It is very important to keep at the cutting edge of employment matters,” she says.
“When you advise on employment law, you need a particularly high level of specialist knowledge. And you need time to be able to keep up-to-date.”
Mason believes niche firms can hardly fail: “We can undercut the large firms by as much as 50 per cent. With savings like that, clients are bound to give us a try. If you can prove yourself on the first job, you are almost guaranteed the work.”