Lawyer Limelight: Garry Mathiason

Garry Mathiason's influence on the practice of labor and employment law is hard to overstate. He oversees about 1,000 employment law cases at any given time and will occasionally take on a case directly at the trial or appellate stage. Last year, for example, Mathiason won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Granite Rock Company in its dispute with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters over the role of arbitration in a labor dispute and strike.

But the San Francisco-based Mathiason, who serves as chairman of the board at Littler Mendelson as well as of the firm's corporate compliance practice group, has wielded his greatest influence as a developer of preventive programs and strategic initiatives to provide legal services at a reduced cost. He also helped develop workplace violence protocols that are used throughout the U.S. and other countries. Mathiason has spent 39 years at Littler, the world's largest labor and employment firm with 825 lawyers spread across 53 offices.

Lawdragon: Why did you go into employment and labor law after finishing law school?

Garry Mathiason: In law school I did a law review article on a labor law topic that dealt with the role of retirees in the union structure. In the course of that research, I learned from the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board in his testimony before the Senate that the government had a fairly high turnover of NLRB attorneys, and he was criticized for that. The chairman shot back that it wasn't fair, saying, "We really are like a fellowship training institute, and it's good that a number of our attorneys go into private practice because it gives us the most educated labor bar in the world."

All the light bulbs went on that this was a way I could get paid to further my education, so I decided then that I would approach the NLRB for one of their positions and was fortunate enough to be selected.

LD: How did you end up at Littler?

GM: Working for the NLRB I came into contact with maybe 40 or 50 law firms that practiced labor and employment law. At that time, there was not the dominant concentration of the practice in the hands of a few firms as there is now. I was startled at the difference in quality, attention to detail and passion for the representation of clients between Littler attorneys and everybody else. I decided that this was the firm that would evolve and become the world's largest employment and labor law firm, so I joined when there were about nine lawyers. I think I was the ninth lawyer and we have greatly expanded since that time.

LD: Has your management position taken time away from your practice?

GM: With our firm structure, we have a managing partner who does give up much of his practice in favor of management, but as chairman of the board I get to think about policy directions and strategic initiatives in a way that does not completely dominate my schedule. I still spend the majority of my time representing clients and working on cases. And I think to disconnect the future vision of where the practice is going and how we can better serve it from the day-today practice of law is a huge mistake. I think you have to keep your edge sharp in terms of what the problems of employers really are and at the same time be thinking five or 10 years ahead as to what the solutions will be that are being developed now. We could not more strongly believe that one of the most significant changes in the practice is happening right now.

Inside Littler we are in our fifth generation of knowledge management and are finally at the point where technologies are enabling us to capture existing information and make it useable in a way that we can bring down the cost of legal services by 25 to 50 percent and improve quality - and have it handled largely through a software program operated by attorneys that aren't necessarily stationary in a fixed office but are flex-time attorneys located all over the world, in this instance primarily in the United States.

LD: Can you flesh this out some more - why this is such a dramatic time in the practice?

GM: The actual law will change, but not that dramatically. I mean there are many initiatives under the Obama administration with new regulations and a lot of activity in state legislatures that create new laws and standards but what's really changing is the use of technology as it drives the modification and adjustment of law. I will make that very concrete. It use to be that you would have a company that had an application for employment in, say, 38 states, and the company would send that to a labor lawyer or multiple lawyers and say, "Can you please look at this and make sure it's compliant for all 38 states and make any variations that are necessary." Well, to research the 38 states and look at the local requirements and more specifically at the administrative requirements, the way the statutes and regulations are actually processed - to do an excellent job of that might take 1,000 hours and significant resources in all these states.

We can now do that in maybe two hours at a de minimus cost because we have a whole network and process whereby all that information is collected and collated and put into an electronic storage system and then retrievable to the point where there is massive economic benefit back to the user and at the same time a higher quality of legal product...

We also now have an electronic system that takes 150 of the standard problems you have in employment and labor law and matches them up with requirements worldwide... We edit it all together and provide it in one piece of software and that is revolutionizing the way employment and labor law compliance is conducted. Over on the litigation side we've completely changed the way administrative charges get responded to so that they're faster, better and bring down the litigation costs while always keeping an eye on quality.

LD: To reap the benefits of these changes the firm must have always had it's eye on the next technology advances, even decades ago.

GM: It's technology but what it starts with is real problems our clients are facing and looking for solutions and not being satisfied with old answers. And then as you look for those solutions, increasingly technology helps you find the best ones. Sometimes it's just reaching into multidisciplinary resources, to take advantage of other disciplines - accounting, medicine, security, psychology.

LD: What about some external factors affecting the practice? I know that the firm has often mentioned the growth of contingent workers.

GM: Yes, we have done tracking in partnership with the Staffing Industry Analysts, which is a research arm, dealing with the contingent workforce, and what's happening is that a model developed by MIT back in the 1990s has started to come true. They predicted what employment would look like in 2015 and contemplated that often the business structure would be such that a small organization with massive capital would go into a project and - much like a movie set - bring in management, scientists, engineers, etc., people with relevant skills to get a job or task accomplished, and they would float back into the economy. So you have real time supply and this is real time labor, and we've seen this trend developing intensively.

When the last recession hit, you had a pullback by employers initially where the first to be laid off are the contingent workers, but when they come back, as they are now, the replacements are contingent workers and the game plan changes so that there is more flexibility for staffing. Couple that with the MIT model, and we predict that half of the positions that get reestablished that were permanent positions will become contingent positions. We already have data that over 25 percent of the workforce could fall into that category.

What we did was analyze the employment and labor law implications of a contingent workforce and effectively put together a whole practice area within Littler to determine how intellectual property is handled with contingent workers; what is the role of National Labor Relations Board and union organizing; what obligations do you have with wage and hour compliance in that area; what about harassment, discrimination, and the list goes on. The challenge for lawyers today is to provide compliance solutions for your clients before there is a lot of caselaw and guidance out there that will tell you what the compliance system is. And that's a real opportunity for bringing value to your client and hopefully being right about where the law is going.

LD: What about changes brought about by the Obama administration, such as with healthcare?

GM: We have seen more change - and not so much numbers of regulations, directives and enforcement initiatives - but the depth and scope of the changes are greater under the Obama administration than we've seen in the last 50 years at least. And healthcare is just a perfect example because literally there are developments on a daily basis as those regulations get structured and push their way through the process. We actually have a liaison attorney in Washington, DC, whose sole task is to keep current on regulatory and enforcement efforts. We put out a publication recently where we tracked the various agencies and departments as to what initiatives are for enforcement and regulation, and the Department of Labor is among the most active with new initiatives undertaken by the EEOC, OSHA and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance; all of that requires digestion and coordination into a systematic response.

We are working on software to accomplish that with Legal Onramp and right now have a couple of major companies going through a beta system whereby we track every day the regulations and enforcement changes that come out of Washington. Ever week, we summarize them and then give them a label - green, amber or red. If the label is red it means something has to change in your polices and procedures, and with the beta companies we have the ability to go in and pull up their procedures and policies and send back suggested rewording or changes that have to be made. That service, I think, is invaluable because of the amount of resources a company would have to spend to do the same thing. We can do it collectively and be able to make it economically feasible by spreading the cost over a large number of users.

LD: Where does Littler, already the largest employment firm, go from here?

GM: Well, I think that our mission is simple. We work really hard at providing solutions that will work for a company that is multi-state, in other words a national company, where you iron out differences between states or have systems set up to accommodate those differences. We see the great challenge for the next decade being the equivalent effort worldwide. That's why we feel so strongly about building a capacity to offer help and guidance to clients that already are worldwide in their economic implications. And I'm not talking just about huge companies that exist in our world but companies of 100 or 200 employees that source their product from Asia, sell in the Middle East and Europe, and that is common today.

Employment law is racing to keep up. The great challenge ahead of us is to have employment law and the way that it's practiced done in such a way that makes it possible to have a code of conduct that you can apply worldwide, that you can hire a contingent workforce worldwide, that you can have a policy with regard to severance and termination that works worldwide. And there are significant differences by country but what you can do is figure out how to come as close as possible to duplicating your core values.