Diversity on Docket as Tilson Takes Lead of ABA Labor Group

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By Gayle Cinquegrani

Joe Tilson hopes to increase diversity and inclusion in the American Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Section once he becomes its chair on Aug. 4, he told Bloomberg Law.

“We have made great strides in the labor and employment section over the years in diversity,” he said, but “we’re never satisfied.” In particular, he plans to establish partnerships with minority lawyers’ groups.

The section already collaborated with the National Employment Law Council, an organization for minority management-side labor and employment lawyers, on a program that taught young lawyers to conduct a jury trial.

“Most professional organizations typically cater to one side or the other,” Tilson said. “What makes the ABA unique is we always have balance” among management-side and worker- and union-side lawyers. That allows members to “establish relationships with people who are normally adversaries,” he said.

Adding In-House Lawyers

Tilson wants to add members from corporate legal departments and increase diversity in the section’s leadership.

A “deep interest in discrimination issues” drove Tilson to become a labor and employment attorney. He credits his father—a minister, divinity professor, and civil rights activist—with inspiring him to become a lawyer.

Tilson got interested in the union movement while at the University of Michigan, where he attended both college and law school. He became a management-side lawyer after realizing he “could effect change representing employers” by helping them bring their policies into compliance with the law. Labor and employment law is “an area where you can help your clients work through real human problems,” he said.

Tilson switched sides once to negotiate an employment contract for his son Charlie, who was drafted out of high school by the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Charlie is now an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox.

Tilson helped start Meckler Bulger Tilson in Chicago in 1994. That firm combined with Cozen O’Connor in June 2015 with “the mandate to establish a national labor and employment practice,” Tilson said.

Cozen “already had a network of over 25 offices at the time, so it made sense to populate them with labor and employment lawyers because all of our clients have employees,” Tilson said. Cozen had 15 labor and employment lawyers before the Meckler lawyers arrived; they pushed the number up to 35, he said.

Doubling Cozen’s Labor and Employment Practice

Since then, the 700-lawyer firm has more than doubled its roster of labor and employment lawyers to 76, said Tilson, who co-chairs the firm’s labor and employment department.

“We are particularly interested in growing our practice on the West Coast in the labor and employment area, especially California, which is a very fertile area for labor and employment litigation.”

“One of the first things I did was recruit some of the prominent labor and employment lawyers I’d met through the ABA,” Tilson said. “My ABA relationships have been instrumental in growing the firm.”

Of the federal court appearances made by Cozen O’Connor during the past three years, 10.8 percent involved employment cases, and over the past 12 months, 11.8 percent did, according to Bloomberg Law’s Litigation Analytics.

Tilson, a founding member of the Wage and Hour Defense Institute, handles both labor and employment matters, including collective bargaining and arbitration cases. “There’s been a trend toward more specialization as the labor and employment laws have exploded over the last couple of decades,” Tilson said. “I’ve managed to keep my feet in both spaces.”

Higher Education Clients

Many of Tilson’s clients are educational institutions. He and other Cozen O’Connor lawyers represented Northwestern University when the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a petition by a labor union trying to organize the school’s student football players.

The labor board said it would “cause chaos in college sports” if student athletes at the private Northwestern University unionized while the public universities in the Big Ten were outside the board’s jurisdiction, Tilson said. “It was really quite a surprise that we were able to get a unanimous decision from the Obama-era NLRB,” Tilson said.

Now many of Tilson’s higher education clients are fighting the push by adjunct faculty to form labor unions.

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