Lehigh Valley Business: Partners building firm with focus on labor law

One way for lawyers to distinguish themselves from the competition is to offer highly specialized services in one area of the law. And the niche law firm, once a rarity, is becoming more common, more in-demand and more profitable.

Niche law firms are an increasingly strong segment of the legal market, with increases in net income and billing rates of 8.9 percent and 8.7 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to a 2018 survey of 191 law firms by The American Lawyer, a legal industry publication.

Three attorneys locally saw a growing demand for lawyers with expertise in labor and employment law and decided to break away from their former firm, Norris McLaughlin & Marcus PA in Allentown, and establish their own practice.

Together with associate attorney John Buckley, the group opened the start-up firm of Hoffman, Hlavac & Easterly in March in Allentown, devoted to labor and employment law.

Lehigh Valley Business sat down with firm’s three partners, Steven Hoffman, George Hlavac and Edward Easterly, to learn about their decision to focus on one area of the law, and what local employers need to know about labor and employment law today.

LVB: There seems to be a trend toward law firms with a specific focus. Why do you think that is?

Easterly: It doesn’t work for every area of the law but I do think it’s a trend. I can’t say why, but I do see it. Part of it has to do with what clients want. They want “specialists.”

Hoffman: Family law is another area where you see standalone niche practices. Real estate, intellectual property ... We also don’t have the overhead needed for general-practice law firms and we can pass that on to the clients.

LVB: How do clients benefit from coming to someone who is more focused on labor and employment law?

Hoffman: Labor and employment is basically all we do, so you are not getting someone who on Tuesday is doing wills, and on Wednesday is working on criminal manners. You are working with people who are seeing this area of the law every day and are up to date on it.

Easterly: This is our focus, our job is to know the intricacies. We can generally answer questions right away. We don’t have to say, “Let me get back to you, I need to research this.” Employment issues are immediate concerns. They need answers right away if they need to fire or discipline an employee.

Hoffman: If one of us is in court, one of the others can answer a client’s questions, because we all know the intricacies. It may take another firm a few days to track down an answer and by the time they get it, that employer could be in trouble.

Easterly: Our goal is to keep our clients out of trouble and keep them from getting sued.

LVB: What sort of clients hire Hoffman, Hlavac & Easterly?

Easterly: It ranges. We have clients that have four employees and we have some of the largest corporations in the Lehigh Valley, like the Lehigh Valley Health Network. You can have five employees or 5,000 and have the same employment issues. There is no distinguishing between small and big business that way.

LVB: Why is it important for local employers to be aware of labor and employment laws? What services do you provide to businesses?

Easterly: In the #MeToo climate we are living in, every company should have certain protections and trainings in place. We provide those. We help employers ensure that they are operating properly and paying people properly. We cover all areas of employment law.

Hoffman: We get involved when employers get sued, in non-competes, and in any situation that employers might find themselves in court about.

Easterly: I had to go to court yesterday for a case in which an employee resigned due to harassment. The question in that case is, did the employer take steps to address and remedy the situation once they were made aware of the harassment. Employers need to know the steps they need to take, because if they don’t do that, that’s where the liability comes in.

LVB: What’s another hot button issue that employers should be aware of and protect themselves against?

Hoffman: Well, harassment really is on the forefront. Everyone has been seeing the #MeToo movement on the news. No one wants to be on the front page with a bad harassment claim.

Easterly: There are always issues coming up. Are you paying your employees correctly? Can employers use a fluctuating work week? Are we paying employees overtime in the manner that we should? Every week it changes. Gender identity issues, bathroom use issues…

Hoffman: Is gender identity protected? Depending on what the Supreme Court says, it will become a potentially major area of the law.

Easterly: Technically the Supreme Court does not list gender identity as a protected identity but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and multiple courts have indicated it may be. Not all courts agree.

LVB: Why the decision to focus on labor and employment law specifically?

Easterly: It’s just where my career took me and I’m very happy it did. It’s one of those areas of law that is always changing. It’s never shocking what employees will do in the workplace. Sometimes something happens that we never heard before. You aren’t just sitting at a desk doing the same thing over and over.

Hoffman: It is both factually and legally interesting as a practice.

LVB: What do you handle outside of labor and employment?

Hoffman: We handle all kinds of commercial and civil litigation. We represent individuals in personal injury, slip and fall, collection cases.

LVB: What’s most challenging about running the firm? About labor law in general?

Easterly: We are all very busy, so trying to run the business on top of actually practicing law is a challenge, making sure all of our clients are being taken care of.

Hlavac: Clearly the most challenging part of labor law is getting business owners to understand what they need to do. A lot of what we do is advise employers on how to protect themselves against lawsuits against them, but that requires doing a lot of things employers might not want to do … document this, document that. Take this precaution, take that precaution. My famous saying is that it’s not a problem until it is. When you do have a problem, you will be in big trouble if you didn’t do the documentation, or didn’t have the right policies in place.

LVB: What has been most satisfying about starting your own firm? About employment law?

Hlavac: That’s easy for me: just building together with people that you care about and respect and enjoy working with. It’s starting from the ground up and saying, “Hey, we are going to build this thing that is going to be successful.” We are excited to see where it all goes. I don’t think it’s different from any other kind of law. It’s the satisfaction that you get from helping a client through a difficult situation. Because of your assistance, they got through it.

LVB: What do you see as the future of labor and employment law?

Hlavac: The government more and more wants to be involved in this type of law. Every year there is some new law or requirement that an employer has to follow. It is becoming a more complex area. There will be more issues regarding immigrants, more on harassment, bullying ...The government will focus more on whether employees are being compensated correctly, whether it be overtime or independent contractors.

Hoffman: The 2020 election, and who controls Congress and who controls the White House will change which direction things go. You are going to see trends in regard to minimum wage as well.

Easterly: Social media. We get more and more calls regarding social media. “Well, our employer posted this or did this” or an employee lost a job because of what they posted on social media.

LVB: Where do you see your firm in five years?

Hlavac: It’s going to look a lot different. It’s a growing area of law and the need for it is always great. We are going to be busy. I have a feeling that there will be some more offices filled.

LVB: What would you like our readers to take away most from this interview?

Hlavac: You need to be prepared to avoid the problems that may come along as an employer. After the problems come up, it is very difficult to make them go away or to fix them without a lot of pain to you. If you focus on avoiding the problem, you will be able to dedicate the time to what you do, whether it is making widgets or selling cars or providing medical treatment. Be proactive.

Beth Hlavac