Luke Bowery, partner at Burges Salmon, considers some of the current issues at play for employment lawyers in the wake of COVID-19 and recent widespread social movements
One thing is clear when Luke Bowery talks about employment law. The Burges Salmon partner tells me it requires lawyers with strong people skills, due in part to the high levels of client interaction at the core of this type of work.
The Oxford history graduate joined Burges Salmon as a trainee in 2002. He qualified into employment and made partner in 2014. Bowery explains with enthusiasm that he chose employment law “due to the breadth of work available”. A wide variety of interesting cases and clients, coupled with a close-knit team, are just some of the reasons he has remained at the firm for so long.
His team covers all areas of employment law — from individual disciplinary and grievance issues through to complex human resources projects, employment litigation and support on major M&A deals. “Trainees and newly-qualified lawyers start life as generalists covering a broad range of employment work”, Bowery explains, “but can often become more specialist later in their careers depending on the clients they work for and the linked work which comes across their desks.”
So, what makes a good employment lawyer? Bowery explains that being “personable”, “empathetic”, and, of course, “good with people” are a must. Employment law is perhaps unique to other areas of the law in the sense that there is a distinct “human aspect” to the work, he adds. Other key skills highlighted by Bowery include the ability to multi-task and to work to tight deadlines, as well as staying on top of fast-moving and ever-changing legislation and case law.
The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown triggered a significant rise in employment-related work, Bowery reveals. Faced with a sudden and urgent move en masse to remote-working and ever-changing rules and guidance on both the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention (furlough) Scheme and making workplaces COVID-secure, employers sought advice from lawyers. Burges Salmon’s employment team had to quickly get to grips with the new rules and schemes and regular changes to the same and, more importantly, understand how they affected their clients. There are important considerations for the long term too as a result of the pandemic, according to Bowery, including likely restructuring and redundancy programmes and potential widespread changes to working patterns and terms and conditions of employment.
Another challenge facing businesses over coming months — and therefore employment lawyers — is the safe return of staff to the office environment (whenever that may be viable). Burges Salmon’s employment and health and safety lawyers will need to be on hand to advise clients on how best to do this while adhering to the relevant rules and regulations. They will also be looking at home-working, which has rocketed in popularity due to the lockdown, and the likely increase in subsequent flexible working requests, Bowery adds. This will involve advising clients on their future workspace and workforce requirements, individual employment contracts (and potentially how pay and allowances might be varied to reflect home-working arrangements) and how to ensure a suitable and safe working environment for employees working remotely.
Another current hot topic for employment lawyers is the Equality and Diversity agenda, driven in part by high-profile social movements including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. He explains that these global actions have brought about an increased awareness of these issues in the workplace, leading to an increase in investigation-type work and often, subsequent employment litigation. In addition, gender pay gap reporting is now a mandatory requirement for businesses with over 250 employees, making issues surrounding equality and pay more transparent between employer and employee. Bowery says ethnicity pay gap reporting is not a mandatory requirement for UK businesses as yet but many clients have already chosen to report voluntarily and as a result, this has been another interesting area keeping employment lawyers busy.
Brexit has also had an impact at Burges Salmon and, in particular, the firm’s immigration practice. Bowery tells me businesses need to know about the “ongoing status of their EU workforce” post-Brexit and what they need to do to be able to successfully navigate the new regime for employing EEA and overseas nationals.
Reflecting on his career, Bowery advises trainees and junior lawyers to be patient, enjoy what they are doing and to try and get involved in as varied a workload as possible. It takes time to gain experience across a broad practice area such as employment and to know your client to the point where you become their “trusted adviser”. For students looking to gain experience in employment law, Bowery acknowledges that we are in unprecedented times but believes opportunities are still out there, given how much employment lawyers are currently in demand. He concludes:
“Make use of the opportunities that are still available; read the legal press and attend online events to learn more about the legal industry and make important connections. Good employment practices are producing significant amounts of online content at the moment so review their websites, listen to their podcasts and videos and attend their webinars to get a better picture of whether employment law might be for you.”
Luke Bowery will be speaking alongside other Burges Salmon lawyers at ‘Hot practice area focus: Life as an employment lawyer’, a virtual student event taking place next week, on Wednesday 21 October. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.
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