Brandeis students receive hands-on lessons in employment and labor law

Much attention has turned to employment law throughout the past two years, particularly as the wave of minimum wage employee strikes grow and union campaigns and wage-related class action suits accelerate.

Professor Ariana Levinson, whose focus is on labor and employment law issues, said the area has always been of interest for students.

“It deals with human stories that students enjoy learning about and because it is normally listed in the fields in which employers hire, whether in good or bad economic times,” she said.

Professor Levinson believes that Brandeis School of Law has become more sophisticated about advising students about which courses will be useful for different career objectives.

Just this year alone, for example, the school has hosted two National Labor Relations Board trials and a role-play of harassment mediation. In March, Brandeis students were able to attend Kentucky Court of Appeals oral arguments, including a case involving wrongful termination.

Brandeis students have also attended the Benefit Review Conferences, and the school’s Wagner and Labor Employment Moot Court team made it to the quarterfinals of the NYLS competition in March.

For measure, we’ve had students receive the Warns Scholarship, attend the Peggy Browning Workers’ Rights conference, help write a CLE paper for a labor and employment section and more. Three of our students also sat on an evidence panel at the Warns-Render Institute this month, where they will made objections that will be ruled on by a federal judge.

Our students are getting a wealth of experience both inside and outside of the classroom, and their experiences are reaffirming why they chose to study employment and labor law in the first place. Some have gravitated toward the plaintiff/employee side.

New graduate Jessica Homer was chosen by the Office of Professional Development to attend the Peggy Browning Workers’ Rights Conference in Maryland last fall and gave a report on her experience to the Employment Law Class.

“When I came to law school, I just wanted to do something civil rights oriented. I spent a week doing public service with the Human Relations Commission in Louisville and I loved it. Between that and my labor law class, I knew I wanted to go into labor and employment law,” she said.

Her interest is specifically in public employment law and working on employment discrimination claims.

Carolyn Purcell, 3L, participated on the Wagner Labor and Employment Moot Court team (pictured), which made it to the quarterfinals at the NYLS event in March, out of about 40 schools. She will return to the team next year. Purcell gravitated toward employment law because she has some union jobs and restaurant work on her resume.

“I’ve seen a lot of workers get taken advantage of while working in a lot of low-wage industries,” she said.

She solidified her focus this year, writing a paper on the wage gap for women and another on wage theft in the restaurant industry. She also volunteers at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center in the Workers’ Rights Department and started her moot court career this semester.

“These are amazing learning experiences that provide a lot of applicable skills you don’t get in a classroom,” Purcell said. “The moot court gave me more confidence in my ability to express my ideas and speak with a passion in a way I never would have learned sitting in a classroom.”

This summer, Purcell is working at the Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor in Philadelphia. She will also attend the Peggy Browning Conference in October.

Grace Chambers, who graduated in May, has been helping out at Clay Daniel Walton & Adams PLC, hopes to practice in the field of civil rights and employment. She attended the Benefit Review Conference this year and believes employment law is important because work experience is universal. It also fits into a broader civil rights angle, which is what propelled her to law school in the first place.

“The balance of power in this country and state in the employment sector is heavily weighted toward the employer. Workers need to have the ability to exert their rights and feel like they’re a crucial part of the economy,” she said. “Workers need to have a place at the table.”

Attending the Benefit Review Conference was a class requirement and enabled her to learn a social aspect she wouldn’t have learned otherwise, including how attorneys interact with their clients and judges.

“This type of exposure – beyond reading a textbook – helps us know what to expect. It makes contemplating going into the actual workforce a lot less scary,” she said.

Some students and alumni have gravitated more to the management side of employment and labor law.

Cindy Federico, one of Brandeis’ part-time students who is graduating this semester, was just hired by Fisher and Phillips, a boutique firm that specializes in management-side labor and employment law.

Leah Rupp Smith, who graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis in 2013, is also on the management side as an associate at Stoll Keenon Ogden. She cites her summer opportunities, including a position at her current firm, while at Brandeis for fueling her interest in this area.

“Once I got to SKO, I was working on a variety of different projects. The firm doesn’t place you in one practice area the entire summer and that is purposeful. Working on lots of different projects helped me identify what I really wanted to do,” Smith said.

Smith also spent a summer during law school at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, where she continued to do some work in employment law, and she joined the Labor and Employment Moot Court Team at Brandeis.

“On the management side, I love that you can be proactive and get in front of problems by counseling clients about the law and practical solutions — like reviewing internal employment policies — that may help mitigate liability down the road. Dealing with issues on the front end helps our clients run efficient businesses and keep good people,” she said. “The clients I work with care about their employees and want to do right by them.”

Smith is now the co-coach, along with 2011 Brandeis graduate and labor-side attorney Ben Basil, of Brandeis’ Labor and Employment Moot Court Team.

Charles Bradley, who graduated cum laude from Brandeis in 2008 and is now with Smith & Smith Attorneys, also found his niche during summer clerkship work during law school. He first worked for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, where he witnessed how policy was implemented and used.

“I was able to see real change and how issues were directly addressed. It was my first real exposure to employment law and I really enjoyed it,” he said.

The following December, Bradley began working at the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office as a Law Clerk. That position provided Bradley his first exposure to unions and collective bargaining agreements.

While Bradley was at Brandeis, he took every employment course available, did an independent study on labor law and participated on the moot court team. He said he wanted to work on the management side because it offers an opportunity to affect institutional change.

“I can be a counselor and an advisor more than someone who reacts to a problem and a single issue. I have the opportunity to address issues and make changes that can affect an entire workforce and not a single individual,” Bradley said. “Most of these folks are just trying to do the best thing for their employees with their business concerns in mind.”