Minnesota Law

Spring 2024
Cover Story

Getting Down to Work

Six Minnesota Law alumni who focus on labor and employment law discuss the business of work

A long history of being a powerhouse in labor and employment law means that Minnesota Law alumni can be found working in some of the top regulatory agencies and biggest law firms and companies in Minnesota and the country. Some are focused on improving wages and working conditions. Others seek to prevent discrimination and harassment or to make new labor and employment laws. 

Roxanne Rothschild ’93
Photo: Jay Mallin

Roxanne Rothschild ’93, executive secretary of the National Labor Relations Board, is one of Minnesota Law’s prominent labor and employment alumni. She traces her interest in labor and employment law to the labor issues that unfolded during her undergraduate internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. When a strike loomed at the newspaper, management instructed non-union employees, like Rothschild, how to cross a picket line. 

“As a 19-year-old, I was terrified,” Rothschild says. “But the strike ended up not happening, and I was very relieved.” 

Rothschild took all of the labor and employment law classes she could at Minnesota Law before working at a labor and employment firm in San Francisco. Homesick, she returned to Minnesota to serve as an in-house employment attorney at 3M. 

Eager to return to labor law, Rothschild joined the National Labor Relations Board in 2002. When the Board named her executive secretary in October 2018, it had been 77 years since a woman had held that position. 

Today, Rothschild serves as the chief judicial management officer for the Board, an independent agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act. The Act also ensures free and fair union representation elections for those who file a petition with the NLRB. The Act protects employees who engage in “protected concerted activity,” defined as when two or more employees act together to improve their working conditions. 

As executive secretary, Rothschild says that, simply put, her job is to help the Board do its job. Her office assigns cases, expedites processing of pending cases, tracks case processing statistics, and issues Board and administrative law judge decisions. Her office answers procedural questions and questions about pending matters because the Board, as a quasi-judicial body, cannot have ex parte communications with parties. 

Rothschild acts as Board liaison with other offices within the agency and with the Administrative Conference of the United States, the American Bar Association, and the Association of Labor Relations Agencies. She also is a fellow in the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. 

Rothschild notes that the Board has issued many precedent-setting board decisions over the last few years, on a broad range of issues that affect the daily lives of workers and employers. This includes establishing a new standard for whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee, revising the standard for an employer’s duty to bargain before changing terms and conditions of employment, and adopting a new standard for assessing the lawfulness of work rules. The Board has also published new regulatory rules that restore fair and efficient procedures for union elections and revised the standard for determining whether two or more entities may be considered joint employers of a group of employees. 

Rothschild credits Professor Emerita Laura Cooper as someone who helped to inspire her labor law career, and who encouraged students to carefully examine all sides of the issues.

Eric Chen ’00, Senior Counsel for New York State United Teachers
Photo: James Kim

“Everyone works or they have worked,” says Eric Chen ’00, who is employed by a labor union, has been president of a union group at his workplace, and is the son of a union member. 

That’s why Chen says he likes working in labor and employment law; it’s a field to which almost everyone can relate. 

Growing up with a father who, as a university professor, was a union member and supporter instilled in Chen an early interest in the labor movement. As a senior counsel for New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), he works for the same union to which his father belonged. It represents nearly 700,000 members who work at or have retired from schools, colleges, or healthcare facilities. 

A union member himself, Chen led three rounds of contract negotiations during more than five years as president of the union that represents attorneys who work at NYSUT. 

“I don’t feel like I’m a lawyer who happens to work for a union,” he says. “I do see myself a lot of times as a unionist who’s also a lawyer.” 

Chen, who joined NYSUT in 2006, brings litigation against school districts or other employers over violations of bargaining agreements or education or labor statutes. 

He defends the union in litigation and Issues are especially complex employees accused of misconduct. When NYSUT seeks to represent a group of private sector employees, Chen may appear at the National Labor Relations Board on their behalf. 

Schoolteachers and other public employees have a degree of stability under New York’s Public Employees Fair Employment Act, Chen says. Known as the Taylor Law, it effectively prohibits strikes and lockouts. When parties can’t agree on terms of a new contract, the current one continues. 

He sees healthcare as the next frontier for labor, with employees who faced increasing demands and pressure during the pandemic now seeking better wages and working conditions. Based on his personal and professional experience with labor, Chen likes representing the underdog. 

“It’s definitely not true for every situation, but certainly there are a lot of situations I encounter where we are the underdog,” Chen says. “Who’s on the other side of us? A school district, the government, a large employer, a large hospital system. So that’s something that appeals to me.”

Sara Kalis ’07, Corporate Counsel in Labor and Employee Relations at Amazon

Just as labor law is constantly changing, so are the business units that Sara Kalis ’07 serves as corporate counsel in labor and employee relations at Amazon. 

Kalis works with a small group on big-picture strategy and day-to-day counsel for Amazon business in the United States, including Amazon web services, operations, and delivery stations. 

“The businesses that I support are constantly evolving,” says Kalis. “You walk into a warehouse, or you walk into one of our air facilities and you think, ‘This looks great, everything is the way it should be, nothing else to do here.’ But there are always people looking at ways to fix, to improve, to home in on how we can change our operations to make them even better. And that is a tenet of labor law. Labor law is not a static body of law.” 

Kalis went from plaintiff-side labor and employment law at Siegel, Brill, Greupner, Duffy & Foster in Minneapolis to management-side at Littler. 

“On the management side, I knew I could fix things,” Kalis says. “If a client presented me with a case where it was clear that something wrong had been done, we could remedy that to the best of our abilities. On the plaintiff side, you’re asking someone else to fix it for you.” 

From Littler, where Kalis traveled 50 weeks a year, she moved to transactional work at Paul Hastings. She joined Amazon in March 2022, returning to traditional labor law work. 

“There are few employers in the U.S. that have as many complex labor issues as what we are presented with daily,” Kalis says. “The opportunity to continue to grow at Amazon is not an opportunity that I see stopping any time soon.”

Shea Holman ’20, Counsel, The Purple Method

Employers who do not receive reports of workplace harassment cannot assume misconduct is not happening, says Shea Holman ’20, counsel for the Purple Method. Issues are especially complex when employees work remotely or in hybrid roles, she says. The Washington, D.C.-based organization works with companies to develop anti-harassment solutions. 

“When it happens in online or virtual platforms, people don’t know that it’s sexual harassment,” Holman says. “They didn’t have examples of what remote or online harassment looks like. But just because people aren’t reporting it doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly solved your harassment problem.” 

Such an assumption contributes to what Holman terms a growing blind spot of unreported workplace incidents. In 2023, only 58% of employees reported poor behaviors they experienced or witnesses, down from 64% in 2019, according to an HR Acuity survey.

Holman’s concerns about employment discrimination and particularly workplace sexual harassment led her to pursue Minnesota Law’s Concentration in Labor and Employment Law. 

During law school, she was a summer legal intern at the Purple Campaign, a nonprofit outreach, education, and advocacy organization. She returned as a legal fellow, completing the last semester of her 3L year there through the Law School’s Remote Semester Field Placement program. 

Holman became law and policy director at the Purple Campaign before serving as its executive director. She joined the Purple Method in 2022. 

In her current role, Holman uses her experience with federal and state anti-discrimination laws and knowledge of workplace harassment issues to provide employers with policies, procedures, and training that help create harassment-free workplaces. That sometimes means identifying what is missing from employee handbooks, such as relationship policies or anti-harassment training. 

Holman credits Professor Emeritus Stephen Befort ’74, her employment law mentor, with encouraging students to think critically about the law. 

“We don’t have to accept the law for what it is,” Holman says. “We can learn it and then shape it and advocate for new laws. That’s a lot of the work I do today, advocating for new laws, particularly around workplace discrimination and harassment.”

Scott Wright ’88, Partner, Faegre Drinker
Photo: Tony Nelson

Before law school, Faegre Drinker partner Scott Wright ’88 researched trade issues in Panama on a Fulbright grant, translated for Cuban refugees, and worked on a hog and dairy farm and later in a meat-processing plant. 

Those early experiences and Wright’s extensive practice in labor and immigration law since then have prepared him to address one of the most urgent issues food and agriculture companies face today: the risk of hiring underage workers in violation of state and federal labor law. 

None of his clients, Wright says, appeared in reports in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes that drew national attention to companies illegally hiring unaccompanied migrant children for dangerous jobs. 

“The big issue that we’re working with our clients in food and ag on right now is how to proactively identify and prevent the employment of people who are in fact under age 18 in jobs that are defined by law as hazardous,” Wright says. “Businesses face devastating liability even when they unwittingly employ people who are under age 18.” 

Wright is sought out as a subject matter expert in part because of his familiarity with various forms of documents individuals use to prove their identity and establish that they have employment authorization. 

“I have looked at literally hundreds of thousands of documents — immigration documents, passports, driver’s licenses, state (identification cards), Social Security cards, birth certificates,” Wright says. “I’ve seen it all, in terms of developing expertise in what is real and what is fake.” 

Wright serves as team leader of the Immigration Global Mobility team, part of Faegre’s Labor and Employment Group. The team has approximately 30 lawyers in London, Shanghai, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C. Most of the team’s work involves managing portfolios of work visas for people going into the United Kingdom, the United States, or China or going from one developing country to another. 

“My greatest passion has been the development of this team,” Wright says. “When I talk about something that I’m most proud of, for me it’s in a big firm environment to have put this team together that is so diverse in language skill, nationality backgrounds, and professional expertise.” 

One of Wright’s fondest memories from his time as a student was participating in the Wagner Labor Law Moot Court Competition in New York under Professor Emerita Laura Cooper’s tutelage.

Lauren Wood ’08, Deputy City Attorney, San Francisco City Attorney’s Office

Lauren Wood ’08 prefers the human side of the law, especially how it plays out in labor and employment cases. 

Several Minnesota Law experiences contributed to that preference, including employment law classes with Professor Emeritus Stephen Befort ’74. Wood was a student attorney and then directed the Workers’ Rights Clinic and had a summer internship with a farm workers’ legal rights organization in Michigan. 

After starting out as a business litigator, Wood pivoted back to labor and employment law. 

“I’ve done antitrust, patent work and breach of contract in private practice, but there’s something about the human dynamic of employment law that I missed,” Wood says. “And so, as I moved along in my career, I just started seeking opportunities to do more of labor and employment work.” 

Wood’s decision eventually took her to the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, where she has worked since February 2022 as a deputy city attorney on the office’s labor team. 

Where most public law offices tend to make heavy use of outside counsel, the City Attorney’s Office in San Francisco has more than 200 attorneys and handles almost everything in house, including litigation. 

“We basically regard ourselves as a public law firm,” Wood says. “We’re essentially the law firm for the City and County of San Francisco.” 

While Wood provides advice to a couple of city departments on labor and employment issues, she focuses more on litigation, working with the team to handle employment lawsuits filed against the city. Those mostly involve employment discrimination claims because state law excludes governmental entities from most wage-and-hour statutes. 

Wood also gets involved in collective bargaining and labor relations. She has handled numerous binding arbitrations arising from grievances filed under collective bargaining agreements. 

Wood began her career her with Robins Kaplan, transferring from the firm’s Minneapolis office to its Los Angeles one in 2011. She pursued opportunities to work on labor and employment matters at smaller firms. 

“Working in a public entity has a different feel,” Wood said. “It’s very service-oriented, and what we’re looking for is a just result.”