Legal Recess: A Look At Public-And-Private Sector Attorney Unionization

by | Jun 20, 2024 | Culture, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Legal, Positive Workplace, UAW, Union Organizing, Unions, White-Collar

This week, the Justice Department experienced an organizing “first” when a group of Environment and Natural Resources Division trial attorneys revealed their intent to petition for a vote to join the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). This could affect up to 350 attorneys, and although plenty of public-sector lawyers already belong to unions – the NTEU represents attorneys from the EPA – it’s uncharted DOJ territory.

What do these lawyers want from a union? It’s complicated.

These federal employees have raised concerns about scheduling logistics, including the topic of return-to-office mandates. AI jitters have also spread to the legal realm, and the NTEU is pushing “to ensure they have a say in DOJ protocols for attorneys using artificial intelligence to write briefs and other legal documents.”

Additionally, these litigators say they want protection against politically motivated retaliation and termination in case an incoming president revives a directive that eases the path to firing federal workers. That desire for protection is understandable, although it is unlikely that a union could follow through on those guarantees with more than broken promises.

How common is unionizing among attorneys? 

Among the public sector, it’s not infrequent, and attorneys are often affiliated with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), which has organized a variety of legal nonprofits, including attorneys and paralegals, as well as federal agency judges. The UAW also has its claws in this industry. In 2023, 1,000 attorneys represented by the UAW-affiliated Association of Legal Aid Attorneys went on strike in NYC for higher pay and protections against overwork and burnout.  In May 2024, Over 100 attorneys, paralegals, and support staff with the nonprofit legal services provider Mobilization for Justice (MFJ) reached a contract agreement that ended a 13-week strike.

In private practice, unionizing workplaces is an outlier practice that depends on a firm’s size and area of practice. This year, Outten & Golden—a mid-sized law firm representing plaintiffs, including unions, in employment-focused litigation—voluntarily recognized a CWA-affiliated union formed by 24 of 65 associate attorneys looking for work-life balance.

In Big Law, associate-attorney unionization is even less of a practice. The reasons for that difference are nuanced but primarily revolve around large corporate firm associates realizing what comes with the territory before taking the job, including work hours, on-call availability to clients, and intense stress in a position that attracts type-A personalities. Professor Eli Wald recently told Bloomberg Law these requirements aren’t “something that would likely change via collective bargaining because it’s a fundamental feature of the industry.”

Big Law incomes—$200K annually is considered a median entering salary for associates—are also a deterrent to organizing, as is the competitive nature of securing these jobs in the first place. Minimal potential benefit exists for these associates to gain anything from a union, especially if they aim to level up to partnership and become part-owners of a firm.

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