The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Alex Stathopoulos is an employment attorney in Orrick’s San Francisco office. Alex defends employers in complex wage and hour class, collective, and representative actions, as well as single-plaintiff lawsuits involving discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination under both California and federal law. Alex also assists employers with pre-dispute demands and administrative complaints, and provides creative and practical counseling to companies on a wide range of employment issues, including new and developing areas of the law.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I defend employers in class, collective, and representative actions that can involve hundreds or even thousands of putative class members. I also handle high-stakes single-plaintiff claims of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation. One of my favorite aspects of this practice is strategizing with employers on how to comply with the varied and ever-changing employment laws, including implementing policies and advising on personnel matters to avoid litigation.
What types of clients do you represent?
I represent a wide variety of clients including technology and life sciences companies, financial institutions, and retail companies. In addition to large established companies, I have helped many startup and emerging companies as well.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
Right now, I’m managing several wage and hour class actions and representative actions. I am also handling a single-plaintiff contract dispute, and a pre-litigation race discrimination matter. I have also been helping numerous employers adapt their policies in light of new laws passed by the California legislature and developing case law that impacts how employers run their businesses.
How did you choose this practice area?
When I joined Orrick as a summer associate in 2010, I specifically did NOT want to do employment law because my career before law school involved strategic employee communications, and it felt like too much of the same thing. But when I met the fabulous people on Orrick’s employment team, I just knew that these were the lawyers and staff members I wanted as my teachers, mentors, and colleagues. I have never regretted it!
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
There really isn’t a typical day—some days I might spend the whole day taking a deposition, prepping a witness to testify, conducting a fact investigation/interviewing witnesses, negotiating a settlement at mediation, or appearing at court for a hearing. But a day in the office might consist of a few hours of email; a couple of hours reviewing the work of other associates on my team and strategizing about our cases; one or two calls with clients to provide counseling and advice on employment issues; calls with opposing counsel to meet and confer over various litigation issues; and (if I’m lucky) a few hours of focused work drafting briefs, deposition outlines, or substantive discovery responses. I also always make it a point to spend some time every morning and afternoon checking in with my colleagues and making small talk about non-work things. Sometimes we go grab lunch together, and I’ve had knitting breaks with my legal secretary before as well.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Apart from research and writing, law school generally does not focus on litigation skills, but these skills are critically important to practicing employment law. I’m very grateful for the practical skills courses I took in law school (Depositions, Civil Trial Practice, Arbitrations) and that I was crazy enough to sign up for every advocacy opportunity I could get my hands on (negotiations team, mock trial, moot court). These experiences made me feel prepared when I was given early “at bats” at Orrick, and I was able to demonstrate that I can handle myself in high-pressure situations. I also highly recommend befriending and learning from the experienced staff members wherever you decide to work. As a junior attorney, I learned so much about the mechanics of filings, assembling of evidence, and court protocols from senior paralegals, our calendar department, and my legal secretary.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
Orrick’s Employment practice is a very special place. In addition to the marvelous people, the Employment group gives out early opportunities to associates who demonstrate a desire and readiness for them. I took my first deposition as a second-year associate and drafted my first motion for summary judgment—the whole thing—that year as well. (We won.) I asked to attend mediations and to argue in court, and most often the answer was “yes.” Now, as a senior associate, I have built on those early “at bats” and get to do some seriously exciting legal work—including handling mediations solo without a partner present, taking plaintiffs’ depositions, and leading a team of associates in a set of extremely complex class action cases. These are the kinds of opportunities I dreamt about when I went to law school, and I feel very lucky to have found a place where they are available to me.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
Employment law is such an exciting area to practice in because the laws are always changing (especially here in California!) and the ways we work are constantly evolving. Right now, some of the hot areas in employment law are arbitration, independent contractor classification, the impact artificial intelligence will have on the employment relationship, remote and flexible working arrangements, the gig economy, issues of gender equity (including pay and parental leave/caregiver status), the #MeToo movement and sex harassment, building really strong and comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs, health and safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the list goes on and on. I can’t say exactly how the practice will evolve in the future, but if I look into my crystal ball, I’d say rain or shine, there will be plenty of work for employment lawyers to do!
In what ways has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice? How have you adjusted to lawyering in the wake of COVID-19?
Lawyering through the pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges of my professional life. We practice at a very high level, and for much of 2020, I had my children underfoot doing remote schooling while simultaneously working to deliver exceptional legal work to clients. No words can describe how hard that is. Orrick is one of the best places to work for women, and provided as many resources as they could, but it was still a very difficult time. And I know it was a tough time for law students and many others as well. Dealing with the logistical challenges presented by the pandemic was compounded by having a large amount of employment counseling work focused on COVID-19, such as health and safety compliance, testing, vaccinations, and accommodations. For a while, it seemed like I was steeped in the pandemic all day, every day. But now that we are at the end of 2021, it feels like we are finally getting to a place where some normalcy is returning. I am looking forward to going back to the office on a hybrid schedule to see my colleagues (and drink fancy coffees!) once again.
What advice do you have for junior lawyers in keeping on top of complex labor and employment laws and the changes to these laws?
My advice is: Be patient, and let your interests be your guide. As a junior attorney, the volume of employment laws on the federal, state, and local level can be overwhelming. Don’t worry, though. In just a few years of practice, you will have a lay of the land, and things will start to click.
That said, we can’t all be masters of everything, so try to find a topic or topics that you are genuinely interested in, and spend some time attending conferences, networking with practitioners within and outside your workplace, reading the legal news, or researching and writing about those areas. If your firm has a research team, work with them to set up email alerts, so you can be the first to know when a new case or article or legislation comes out on the topics you’re interested in. Pretty soon, people will look to you for that subject-matter expertise, and it will become a cornerstone of your practice.