Like most of the lawyers in our guide to the best of the plaintiff employment bar, Todd Gutfleisch has practiced just about his entire career in the field. For that first 15 years, his practice was devoted to defense-side work as an Executive Director for JP Morgan Chase & Co. Gutfleisch eventually switched to handling employee-side matters after leaving the bank in 2008, though he still represents employers on some matters. The New York-based Harris St. Laurent & Wechsler partner, who worked as an engineer prior to pursing a law career, is driven by the diversity and pace of advising clients on complex employment matters and litigating when necessary.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do?
Todd Gutfleisch: As an employment lawyer, I provide legal advice and services in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. That means that my practice involves a mix of drafting and negotiating employment agreements, advising employees and employers on legal issues involving the employment relationship as they occur, negotiating separation agreements and litigating when it becomes necessary. Employment law involves drafting, analyzing and litigating the statutory protections and contractual rights an employer or employee has.
LD: How did you first become interested in employment law?
TG: I started in the litigation department of a large bank in the early 1990s. At that time, employment law was shifting focus from traditional labor law to statutory discrimination protection law in non-union settings. In 1991, Title VII was amended to allow for jury trials and other remedies not previously available, paving the way for lawyers to bring more types of discrimination cases before juries. That development led to an increase in employment cases and the need for more attorneys practicing in this area. I became part of the bank’s small employment group – which grew to be not so small – and never looked back.
LD: What do you like about this part of the law?
TG: Every day is busy, and you never know what is coming next. I could begin the day by drafting a contract, and then find myself involved in an employee/employer investigation involving allegations of misconduct or unlawful conduct 30 minutes later. The rapid pace keeps me always on the edge, which I am drawn to.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
TG: I cannot name just one matter. I have found myself involved in matters involving employees clearly terminated for unlawful reasons as varied as age, gender or disability. In one case, an employer demanded an employee we represented file a false report. After we called the employer’s general counsel to express concern about the demands, the employee was fired the next day. In fact, the company’s general counsel called me to pass the message along! We took that to arbitration, as often required in employment disputes. Unsurprisingly, we prevailed.
We also had a long-fought battle in state court, arbitration and federal court based on an employer’s promise to give our client rights to intellectual property he developed during his employment if he were terminated. After he was terminated, the employer refused to comply. Following a week-long expedited arbitration in which the employee prevailed, the publicly-held parent company of the employer then sued our client in federal court, claiming that the parent, not the subsidiary, owned the intellectual property. The federal court was not amused by the parent company’s ploy and shot it down.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in employment practice these days?
TG: Early in my career, the majority of cases involved employees suing their employers. That trend has shifted. Now, I see employers being more protective of their rights and aggressively bringing actions against employees. Also, employers have made it more difficult for employees to change jobs. In past generations, employees would often find a job at a young age and stay with the employer their whole career, or hope to do so. Today, employees are much more willing to change jobs and want to. This development has brought about a shift in the parties bringing these actions and the aspects of the employer-employee relationship that need protection.
LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?
TG: In employment law, our practice is varied and we handle many matters simultaneously. We recently had a two-week arbitration before FINRA representing an executive who sued his former employer because after he left the company, the former employer clawed back most of his deferred compensation. We were able to recover much of that. In a recent case, we settled just before arbitration on behalf of a few former employees, all in their mid-to-late 50s, who were terminated, we alleged, because of their age. In that case, which involved a large employer, we used expert analysis to show that the odds of each employee’s selection for termination being random, rather than age-based, was less than one percent.
Every day is busy, and you never know what is coming next. The rapid pace keeps me always on the edge, which I am drawn to.
LD: What are some of the challenges of litigating these types of cases?
TG: In these cases – and in most cases – a critical element is that the client stays engaged in the dispute from beginning to end. We as lawyers know the law, but the clients know the facts. Working with clients and having them engaged helps ensure that we ask the right questions and get the necessary information, which are the tools we need for a successful outcome.
LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?
TG: I majored in electrical engineering, which is a very different career track from the law. However, I do think that the analysis that goes into engineering and math helps in the logical analysis of legal matters.
I worked as an engineer on what became the doppler radar systems used for predicting weather. I enjoyed working on the project, which was called NEXRAD. Many of the senior engineers I worked with had multiple degrees, and seeing this helped me decide to pursue additional education. I was more interested, however, in pursuing a law degree over a doctorate degree in math or engineering.
LD: In law school, what type of career did you want to have?
TG: When I went to law school, I focused on pursuing patent law. But as time went on, I became more interested in litigation. However, in law school, I likely pictured having one case at a time to concentrate on. In employment law, that scenario rarely occurs.
LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
TG: I have had many mentors over my career. My first boss at the bank showed through words and actions the importance of hard work and being attentive to details. She also demonstrated how to interact with clients and to fully walk them through their options, and why doing so is important regardless of whether those clients like or agree with your feedback.
LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?
TG: Obviously, the cases I’ve worked on and my responsibilities have increased as I progressed in my career. Early on, my work was nearly all focused on defending employers from lawsuits by their employees. But as my practice evolved, drafting contracts became a large part of it, and many of the cases shifted to pursuing employees. In 2008, I resigned from the bank after almost 15 years and shifted my focus to representing mostly employees. Since then, my practice has continued to evolve; employees become employers, and those we have represented as employees often use us when they form their own companies. So now I would describe my practice as a varied one. I think that variety gives me a valuable perspective that benefits our clients.
LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?
TG: I do not want to name anyone out of the fear I would leave someone out, but I respect most of my adversaries. I understand that the practice of employment law often involves emotions on both sides, and I appreciate when we as lawyers can focus on the legal issues when coming to a solution.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?
TG: I work hard, am very responsive and put my heart into my work every day.
A critical element in employment cases is that the client stays engaged in the dispute from beginning to end. We as lawyers know the law, but the clients know the facts.
LD: What do you like about practice at Harris St. Laurent & Wechsler?
TG: After law school, I have only generally had two jobs: the bank job that I worked at which survived three mergers, and the partner position at the law firm I’m with now, which my predecessor firm merged into a couple of years ago. What I enjoy is the pace and the people. I enjoy collaborating with ethical and good people, and that perfectly describes my colleagues. I enjoy the clients and feel that we help them get through problems.
We are a small to mid-size firm and we know and like each other. We know the families of our colleagues. We respect each other at our firm, and it has a good culture. While we are not a giant firm, our employment practice is very active, and we have a good perspective regarding the market. This insight is often useful in negotiating contracts, where we understand what is reasonable to seek, and where departing from the status quo is advisable. We are always looking for quality people to join our practice.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
TG: I exercise every day in the early morning while catching up on the news. I like spending time with my wife and two children.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
TG: I would like to be playing center field for the Mets. Unfortunately, they would not like me to do so.