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This time, according to the pop economists and sociologists of the 1950s and ’60s, the great American middle class was supposed to have become the great American leisure class. Union membership was falling, the experts noted — having peaked at about 25 percent of the workforce in the mid-’50s, down to today’s 13.5 percent — and the term “working stiff” would soon be as quaint as wooden clothespins. With so much idle time on our hands — horrors! — who would need labor lawyers? David M. Slutsky, 27, and Gregory Zimmer, 36, are too young for first-hand knowledge of such predictions. They chose to specialize in labor law because of what has, in fact, developed in the 21st century: the great American nose-to-the-grindstone class. “To a great extent, our lives are controlled by our jobs,” said Slutsky, a second-year associate at Levy Ratner & Behroozi, a firm known for its labor union representation. “Whether we have health insurance or not depends on our employers. Whether we’re happy or not depends on our employers. “Go anywhere in a social situation,” said Slutsky, a 1998 graduate of George Washington University School of Law, “and the first thing you’re likely to ask another person is, ‘What do you do?’ In a lot of ways, people are identified and judged in our society by the jobs they have.” Which is why Slutsky and Zimmer — who work opposite sides of the aisle, as it were — find much satisfaction in their career choice. Although Zimmer works for a management firm — he is a second-year associate at Squadron Ellenoff Plesant & Sheinfeld LLP — his interest in the labor field was sparked by a job with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. During his second year at Georgetown University Law Center, Zimmer clerked for the union’s general counsel. Zimmer said his Teamsters supervisor wasn’t “thrilled” about his going to work for management — first at Epstein Becker & Green, and subsequently at Squadron Ellenoff. But he had a certain practical reason for the move, one familiar to debt-ridden law school graduates. “The work is similar on both sides,” Zimmer said. “But frankly, the management firms tend to pay more.” Zimmer and Slutsky are of one mind on another practical matter: the advantage that labor law offers young attorneys who want to prove themselves in a hurry. “In some other area of law, I’d be doing documents for the first five years and nobody would know my capabilities,” said Zimmer, who interrupted his undergraduate work at the State University of New York at Stonybrook for several years before going on to law school. “In labor law, I got involved right away in the types of things partners will feel confident in assigning new lawyers. I could really get my arms wrapped around cases. “When you get a chance to prove yourself in arbitrations, for instance,” he added, “then you have a better chance of involvement when it comes to major litigation.” GREAT DRAW OF LABOR LAW Zimmer’s former boss at Epstein Becker, managing partner George P. Sape, agreed that the “great draw” of labor law, as he put it, is the fast start associates can make at establishing their reputations. “I always tell young lawyers at our firm that they’ll come into direct client contact very early in their careers,” said Sape. “You inevitably get thrown into problem-solving situations right away — situations that don’t require a huge amount of support staff, but which do require the confidence of a partner.” Sape is old enough for amused remembrance of the Eisenhower-era vision of a leisure society — “What was that about anyway? We’re all working like crazy!” — and equates it with a workplace simplicity that disappeared over time. “Our jobs have grown more complex over the years, and complexity inevitably breeds disagreement and dispute,” said Sape. “The growth now [in labor law] is flat-out litigation, which has become a much more acceptable way of handling employment disputes than 10 years ago.” At the management firm Proskauer Rose LLP, associate Michael J. Lebowich, 28, has experienced the fast start of which Sape speaks. As Lebowich puts it, “In labor law, the only work out there is hands-on work.” In his fourth year with Proskauer Rose, Lebowich has been involved in a fair number of high-profile matters: the threatened New York City transit strike of last year, the lockout of union camera operators at ABC-Television two years ago, and currently, bankruptcy negotiations for TWA. A 1997 graduate of Harvard Law School, Lebowich focuses his practice on what has come to be known as “traditional” labor law: matters involving union-management disputes, which are subject to National Labor Relations Board regulations or federal litigation. A combination of federal and state statutes govern the much broader “employment law” arena. “The fact is, the growing protections for workers from the federal and state government have reduced the need for unionization,” said Lebowich, whose interest in labor law began in high school in Long Island when he sympathized with his striking teachers. Examples of government worker protections, Lebowich said, include Title VII legislation of 1974, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Family and Medical Leave Act during the Clinton administration. “Each new law becomes a new area of practice,” said Lebowich. “You get this rush of litigation over the statute until people figure out what it means. For instance, we’ve had the Fair Labor Standards Act since the 1930s, right? We get maybe one case on that every couple of years now.” UNION SIDE Although they have not yet directly opposed one another in a union-management wrangle, it is probably only a matter of time before Lebowich faces Tarik Fouad Ajami, a sixth-year associate at Levy Ratner. “When you’re on the union side,” said Ajami, 31, a 1995 graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, “you’re on the side of the angels. You’re contributing to the overall quantum of justice. “Such idealism has its place in labor law. On the union side, the idealism is perhaps more forceful. But management advocates have humanitarian impulses as well. “My job is part law and part social work,” said Slutsky, decidedly a union man. “You’re dealing with human emotions on both sides. I enjoy this added dimension to the law — the look on someone’s face, for instance, when we go to arbitration and I can help them get their job back.” Heather N. Pearson, a second-year associate at Proskauer Rose, holds nearly the same view of her work representing corporate interests. “I’m dealing with people — people with jobs on the line — not just money,” said Pearson, 27, a 1999 graduate of Harvard law. “I have to be able to make bargains that allow people to continue dealing with each other.” Such bargains are sometimes elusive, as long-time labor lawyer John T. McGuire can attest. McGuire, a 1967 graduate of Fordham University School of Law and now associate national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, recently came through a strike by the commercial actors segment of the union that took up the better part of last year. This year, a strike deadline looms this summer for movie and television actors. On both fronts, the issues on the negotiating table involve what McGuire termed “cutting-edge law in technology implementation and international treaty applications for performers.” For young lawyers, he said, timely issues mean increased responsibility — meaning advancement opportunity. “That’s why I advise young lawyers to work for unions like ours,” said McGuire. “For the broad experience. “If you want to make a difference rather than a lot of money, you should look for opportunity in unions,” he said. “You get experience and you contribute.”

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