Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I'm a management-side lawyer

In responding to my piece from yesterday on Colorado's just cause initiative, Professor Paul Secunda at the Workplace Prof Blog had this to say:

I don't believe that employers only fire employees usually for good reasons. I guess that is why Jon is still a management attorney and I no longer am.

Paul's comment got me thinking -- why am I a management attorney? Let me try to answer it this way.

I'm not so naive to think that businesses only fire people for good reasons. Companies fire people for lots of reasons -- good, indifferent, and unlawful. In a perfect world, discrimination, retaliation, and harassment wouldn't exist. But they do, and companies, even those with the best of intentions, run afoul of the complexities of our myriad employment laws. Every lawsuit, administrative charge, and internal complaint is an opportunity for a company to learn from a mistake, whether legal or inter-personal. It's an opportunity to train employers how to handle an employee relations problem better the next time.

I say that mistakes can be legal or interpersonal because lawsuits don't necessarily happen because an employee was discriminated against. Lawsuits happen because people feel disrespected, unappreciated, or that they were just plain treated unfairly. It's my job to make sure that employers understand this dynamic. When that dynamic fails, it's my job to help employers get it right the next time.

In a perfect world, I'd never get a call that a client has been sued. In a perfect world, companies would call me once a year to give their HR practices a full review for compliance with the latest and greatest laws and court decisions. In a perfect world, companies would budget for proactive help, and understand that a small amount of legal fees spent upfront would save a mess of headaches and a huge legal bill later. Life, however, is far from perfect, and often I am only called when the summons arrives. While I love the thrill of the battle that litigation presents, it's the satisfaction I get from helping clients fix their problems so that they get it right the next time that motivates me to do my job everyday.