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Bulletproof Blog, Law Firm Faces New Spate of Overtime Wage Cases

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Authored By: Larry Smith March 3, 2010

In this regular feature, Bulletproof interviews top plaintiffs' attorneys for their perspective on the crises likely to affect businesses in the near future. Today we talk to employment lawyer Anthony Lazzaro of The Lazzaro Law Firm, LLC in Cleveland, Ohio, who specializes in wage and hour cases. Mr. Lazzaro is currently representing some 40 legal secretaries against their employer, Turocy & Watson, an intellectual property law firm.

The employees claim the firm misclassified their job status so that they would not be entitled to overtime pay under the professional exemption to federal overtime laws. The plaintiffs say they have never performed work requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning. While not the first such case of its kind, it could well represent a growing trend, particularly in the current economic environment. In fact, soon after the case was filed, similar action was taken in Washington, D.C. by an employee of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

Is there a reason law firms or other professional service firms might be more susceptible to these kinds of cases?

Anthony Lazzaro: On the one hand, I’d say no – that all industries employing workers are susceptible to misclassification problems. Law firms, you’d think, might even be less exposed because lawyers know the law.

On the other hand, there are factors that do indeed particularly expose law firms. Legal secretaries tend to work more hours than secretaries in other industries. They don’t necessarily go home when the lawyers do. Quite to the contrary, they can be up filing all night, or manning the phone on behalf of their attorneys.

With paralegals, the temptation to misclassify status can sometimes be greater because they bill out their time. A firm can, of course, fully realize those billings if it doesn’t have to pay for extra hours at an increased rate.

Do you see any impact from cases like yours on how law or other professional service firms might adjust their employee classification practices?

Anthony Lazzaro: I do anticipate that law firms will start paying more attention to how they classify employees. But there will always be the start-up firms that don’t know what they’re doing or that, as new ventures, feel pressured to contain costs even as they feel pressured to pile up more hours.

In some cases, there’s a tendency for employers, including law firms, to simply assume that the overtime hours are de minimis. So they get sloppy in their practices or they figure that no one will gripe about these supposedly trivial amounts. Of course that kind of thinking is pretty silly at a law firm, where the overtime potential is never trivial by normal labor/employment standards.

What other industries are on your front burner in terms of wage and overtime cases?

Anthony Lazzaro: Any industry that employs lower-wage hourly workers bears watching. But if I had to single out any industry, the one that occurs to me right away is the food business, both restaurant and food production employees. In some parts of that industry, holding back on fair wages is considered to be standard, even acceptable practice. You sometimes find a veritable culture of exploitation.

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