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Lawyer Limelight: Jonathan Sulds

It’s only fitting that Jonathan Sulds is in the Hall of Fame of Lawdragon’s Most Powerful Corporate Employment Lawyer guide, given that he rose to prominence in the profession through the tutelage of the field’s most iconic figures. A New York-based Greenberg Traurig shareholder, Sulds never studied labor law during his legal education at Harvard but came to love a people-oriented practice that could have a broad impact on society. Sulds chaired the firm’s renowned Global Labor and Employment Practice from 2010 to 2018.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?

Jonathan Sulds: Generally, about 30% to 40% of my work has something to do with traditional labor law. I negotiate several collective bargaining agreements for employers each year, and provide strategies on other negotiations. Right now, for example, I am in the midst of various negotiations with a number of employers, including a national healthcare client, a national waste management company, and a local cultural institution. I also advise regularly on labor law aspects of corporate transactions and bankruptcies. We just finished a project laying out labor relations strategies for a quasi-public utility in a bankruptcy situation. And a segment of all this includes trial work before the NLRB and in arbitration.

Another 30% to 50% of my time is devoted to employment litigation. I head up class and collective actions – and try wage and hours, harassment, discrimination, bonus, restrictive covenant and other similar cases to juries. Then, I also handle ERISA class actions; we just had the Fifth Circuit confirm dismissal of a stock-drop complaint.

LD: What keeps you excited about the practice?

JS: Our practice is about people – it’s endlessly interesting and challenging, just like people are, and the practice is really diverse. I try cases, argue appeals and stay up late at night telling jokes as I negotiate agreements. Every day has something new and every day I use different skill sets. That’s really cool.

LD: What else do you find satisfying about it?

JS: In labor and employment law you want to win your case. But cases are reflective of issues – fix the issue and you avoid the dispute in the future.  And finding ways to solve problems – given the various concerns and constituencies a workplace may house – is very satisfying.

LD: How did you get into this type of practice?

JS: Serendipity. On my second day in practice, I showed up for a breakfast meeting at 8:15 a.m. Bright eyed, ready to go. Except, the meeting had been rescheduled for 8:00 a.m. from 8:30 a.m.; and I had been “volunteered” for a labor project.

Over the next several years, I had the incredible fortune to work with and learn from some of the really historic New York labor lawyers and labor leaders of the time. To name a few: Ed Silver, Howard Lichtenstein, Herman Cooper, Ted Kheel, Eric Schmertz, Judy Vladeck, Irwin Bluestein, Peter Ottley, Bill Kennedy and John Feerick.  And I’ve had great colleagues throughout my career like Alan Jaffe, Bob Batterman, Allan Weitzman, Steve Tallent, Bill Kilberg, Dave Cathcart, Gene Scalia, George Salem, Don Livington, and Pete Zinober.

I never took a law school labor law course. Archibald Cox was the legendary labor law professor when I was at Harvard, but he left to be Watergate Special Prosecutor before third year and I never studied with him; instead I learned labor law on the job from all those folks and more. Wonderfully, later on, I’ve had the chance to teach both labor law and administrative law at Cardozo as an adjunct and become the author of the Matthew Bender treatise, “New York Employment Law”. Really, I think that shows how law school can teach you how to teach yourself, especially if you have mentoring opportunties.

LD: How did working with and around all those role models shape you?

JS: The folks from older generations grew up when unions were ascendant both politically and in a number of venues. So, to achieve changes that became necessary, as industries or economic models evolved, what these folks collectively knew and practiced was they had to find common interests and common sources of pain or concern to pave the way for deals to be made. So, first there needed to be recognition how important to all – either for the common benefit or common avoidance of pain – a deal was, and then I learned from that group that those commonalities had to be deployed in a way and at a time to galvanize decision making.

What I saw from Ted Kheel and Eric Schmertz when they mediated and what I learned by observing how others went about negotiations was a real master class. I’ve had the amazing good fortune to use those lessons in a range of matters that trace the arc of American industry changes in the last 40 years. Starting with the culmination of the New York City bankruptcy avoidance negotiations in the late 70’s; through modifications in the delivery and manufacture of garments; to the New York milk industry end of licensing and national introduction of UHT [Ultra-High Temperature] pasteurization; through the massive transformation of the newspaper/media industry; on to the current reformation of delivery modalities – with stops for changes in steel and auto and healthcare – with new issues from globalization; displacement involving benefits and their delivery; and the emergence of the gig economy, every one of these developments has brought new challenges to advising employers how to manage within the law.

And I think the flexibility these folks had, as a pretty common trait, has been a really key example to me. It’s also a really important lesson to me that the practitioners I learned from were all strong litigators. That’s an essential part of the labor and employment lawyer tool kit. Reason does not always pave the way to agreements; so you have to have an understanding what issues will and will not be favorably resolved in court or another forum, to understand leverage and formulate strategy. And I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of labor law. Under the labor law, parties can try to harm each other – that’s what strikes and lock-outs do. That is pretty singular in the civil law.  So, at bottom, in that context, you are using the law and your skills to avoid the possibility of that harm.

LD: Are there any developments you think will impact labor and employment law long term?

JS: Twenty-first century work – how it is performed, where, how it is compensated, by whom – is profoundly different from the work from 50, 100 or more years ago. Robots, changing local protections for workers, information overload, new skills needed, all of it has profound impacts for the area. And we also have generational change. It will all drive new approaches. We’re working out of a model that began with guilds and the master/servant relationship. The next generations will write the story whether that model changes and if so, how. But, I think conflict and dispute resolution skills – identifying areas of overlapping interests and reasons why agreements are critical will always be necessary.

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