Eric L. Barnum
Partner, Schiff Hardin LLP in Atlanta
Member, McGeorge Alumni Association Board of Directors
Area of Practice: Employment Law
Year Graduated: 1994
Eric is a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP in Atlanta. He is an experienced trial lawyer, whose practice areas include wrongful discharge, discrimination and hostile environment harassment litigation, labor arbitration, and analysis of personnel practices and procedures. Eric also conducts training and educational seminars for lawyers and human resources professionals on various aspects of employment law. He has a background in career counseling and speaks on issues of youth mentoring and motivation. Eric earned his B.A. in History from UCLA.
Interview for Employment Law Pathways
Eric Barnum started and finished law school with grand ambitions. "I went to law school because I wanted to be a social engineer," Mr. Barnum explains. "In my mind, there were three ways that I could really have an impact on society: through medicine, through religion, and through law. I didn't have the acuity in the science fields for medicine, I don't have the temperament for the clergy, and I've always been a logical thinker, so the law was a natural fit for me." During his three years at McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, Mr. Barnum discovered that there were many ways through which he could use his law degree to effect positive social change.
As an employment law attorney at Schiff Hardin's Atlanta office, Mr. Barnum helps his clients, all of whom are employers, provide work environments where their employees can feel confident and secure. "I actually get to effect more positive change on this side of the law," Mr. Barnum points out. "My clients call me every day wanting to know what they should do, and I have the opportunity to advise them on how to create workplaces that are fair, that are passionate, and that provide ample opportunities." For example, early in his career, a client asked Mr. Barnum if the company could fire an employee because he didn't want to switch from receiving his salary as a paper check to receiving it through direct deposit. Mr. Barnum told the client that legally the company could fire the employee for that reason, but then he helped the client see that to do so would be unwise. "It seemed like such a trivial reason to essentially upend someone's life," he remembers.
Mr. Barnum grew up in Los Angeles, California, and he stayed there after high school to complete his undergraduate Bachelor degree in History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During college, Mr. Barnum worked as an assistant at a law firm. "I took some time to work and figure out what I wanted to do, and, in all candor, when I got out of the workplace, I realized that to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish in life, I was never going to do that without ... an advanced degree," he says. Mr. Barnum chose McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific to complete his post-graduate education because of the school's location in California and its reputation for producing practice-ready lawyers.
At McGeorge, Mr. Barnum gained clinical experience at Community Legal Services and was actively involved with the school's moot court competition teams. Mr. Barnum appreciated that his professors at McGeorge seemed to truly invest themselves in his education. "I had really good relationships with my professors," he recalls. "I really felt every day that my professors wanted me to learn the subject matter and they were preparing me to be the best lawyer I could be when I graduated. I realized pretty quickly after I graduated that I was better trained to practice law than most of my peers who graduated from other law schools." When he started as an attorney at Haight Brown and Bonesteel, a regional insurance defense firm in Los Angeles, Mr. Barnum felt like he already knew what he was doing.
Mr. Barnum's practice at Haight focused on products liability and general litigation, but he also handled some employment law matters while he was there. It was at Haight that Mr. Barnum "fell in love with [employment law]." In pursuit of his newfound passion, Mr. Barnum eventually moved to another firm in Los Angeles, where he practiced employment law full-time. In 2000, he transferred to the firm's Atlanta office and never looked back. "Atlanta is a great city. A diverse, vibrant city that is still growing ... Companies are moving to Atlanta to set up their base of operations, in large part due to the fact that it's still an affordable place to live," he observes. In 2006, he was offered the opportunity to join Schiff Hardin as head of its labor and employment practice. He has been with the firm ever since. "At every step along the way, I have been able to grow and diversify my practice," he says. "I have been blessed with tremendous opportunities in my career, and I have been blessed to have great mentors."
As an attorney in the Labor & Employment and Litigation groups at Schiff Hardin, Mr. Barnum represents employers and managers in a variety of sectors, including transportation, manufacturing, education, real estate, health care, and retail. The issues he handles are diverse: non-compete clauses, trade secrets, wrongful discharge, employment discrimination, failure to promote, failure to hire, workplace harassment, contract claims, personnel practices and procedures, wage and hour claims, and unfair competition, to name a few. Mr. Barnum also oversees a fair amount of complex, multiparty lawsuits, including high-value class action cases. "Probably 25-30% of my practice is class action work. Then I also do litigation work, what we in this industry call 'single-plaintiff' work, and advice and counseling. That includes advising employers on their employment law policies, personnel matters. It can be a very, very diverse practice," he explains.
Mr. Barnum's practice requires him to represent clients in front of administrative tribunals, state and federal departments of labor, and workers' compensation appeals boards, as well as in state and federal courts, although he does not spend all, or even the majority, of his time inside the courtroom. "My day-to-day work involves internal strategizing with my litigation team and reviewing documents—whether memos, briefs, or settlement agreements," he explains. "It also includes conferences with clients and opposing counsel, where a client and I are strategizing on a matter that we have before us or I'm updating the client on something that has occurred ... Or I may be negotiating or setting up a discovery schedule or talking about a trial or hearing." Also as part of his practice, Mr. Barnum must work with his clients' in-house counsel. "I'd say 65-75% of the clients I represent have in-house counsel ... They are extremely sophisticated lawyers and so the level of our discussion is pretty high," he says. Mr. Barnum also explains, "My job involves non-billable hours as well, getting involved in the community, presentations, and pro bono work." Outside of the office, Mr. Barnum leads training and educational seminars on employment law for attorneys and human resources professionals, and he has also given many speeches and presentations on the legal implications of social media and technology in the workplace.
Mr. Barnum works hard to obtain positive results for his clients. "Private practice in general requires a great deal of dedication because it's a lot of work," he says. "You have to perform every day at a very high level. Particularly on the defense side, particularly if you're working at a law firm. Clients are paying us top dollar to get the best legal advice and representation available." For Mr. Barnum, the energy he puts into his job is well worth the pay off; he gains satisfaction from knowing that his work adds value to his clients' businesses. "There is nothing worse than a disgruntled former employee except a disgruntled current employee," he explains. "It's important to provide a workplace that is fair and full of opportunity because ... the effect on morale, the soft costs associated with managing disgruntled employees are more expensive than defending a lawsuit. When I advise my clients on how to do things the right way, I'm actually saving them money ... I find that my clients are loyal because they believe I add value to their organization."
Writing, Mr. Barnum says, is the most important skill in his practice, and he advises students who are interested in employment law to do everything they can to strengthen their writing skills. "You need to be a good writer. A lot of what we do, the cases are decided on the pleadings. Probably less than 5% of employment cases that are filed ever see a jury. Most cases [are going] to be decided on paper by the judge," he explains. "You need to be able to articulate your thoughts clearly and concisely, and you need to be able to persuasively analyze the law ... I always try to write my briefs in a way that will read well but will also be compelling. I want [judges and their clerks] to feel like they can't wait to get to the next page."
In addition, Mr. Barnum recommends that students learn about employment law and try to gain work experience in that area. "You don't have to make a decision now about which side of the aisle you want to be on—plaintiff, defense, or union," he notes. "Substantively, the issues are the same. If you can get a job in employment law, that's what you want to do. Learn the subject matter, learn the law. You can make the decision [about which side you want to represent] later because it's experience that will make you valuable."
Mr. Barnum enjoys the variety of his practice. "It's probably the most diverse practice area of all the practices areas I think I could have gone into...," he notes, "[and] it's always a great story. Some of the stuff that I see and deal with in my practice, I think to myself, 'I couldn't have written this if I were trying to come up with a novel.' It's about people ... It's always interesting."