Burlco lawyer is a leader on employment cases nationally

Patricia Barasch and her law partner, Richard Schall, run an employment-law firmin Moorestown.
Patricia Barasch and her law partner, Richard Schall, run an employment-law firmin Moorestown.
Posted: March 19, 2013

With 20 years in the business of representing employees who say they have been wronged at the workplace, employment lawyer Patricia Barasch has plenty of stories to tell:

The woman in the hospital being treated for depression who received a fax, while in the hospital, telling her she was fired.

The man who spent years working extra nights and weekends and went into his boss' office expecting a bonus and compliment for his hard work. Instead, he was laid off - at 63.

"A lot of the cases make me cry," Barasch said.

Barasch and her law partner, Richard Schall, run a small employment-law firm in Moorestown.

But her influence in the field spreads far beyond New Jersey.

She heads the 3,000-member National Employment Law Association (NELA), a professional group for lawyers like her who, as the group's website says, advance employee rights in the workplace by promoting the interests of individual employees.

She took office as the group's president in 2009. Her term expires in June. The organization has its headquarters in San Francisco and a legislative office in Washington.

Lately, Barasch said, NELA has been working to push worker-friendly candidates for vacancies on the federal judicial bench.

"Before Obama, the group was involved in opposing nominations," Barasch said, "but once Obama was elected, we became involved in researching and vetting candidates."

Besides pushing for racial and gender diversity on the bench, the group advocates for "professional diversity among judges so we don't just get former prosecutors," she said.

Another issue? "We are attempting to ban forced arbitration," Barasch said.

Employers, she said, are increasingly asking employees to sign contracts agreeing to binding arbitration instead of filing lawsuits if they feel they face discrimination or harassment.

"It's a real issue out there," she said, particularly at a time when jobs are hard to find.

"Employees should not be forced to give up their rights for a jury trial just to get a job," she said. "People don't understand what they are signing."

So far, it's not a huge concern in New Jersey. "Most employers don't insist on it. It's not part of the culture," she said.

Barasch grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with activist parents. Her father, who became a judge, started his career organizing workers at the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurant in New York. Her mother was a teacher and guidance counselor who was active in her teachers' union and in Democratic politics.

"Both of them instilled within me the desire to make a difference in the lives of others," she said.

Barasch studied to be a psychologist, but her first job as a research assistant in the late 1980s put her in a position to help organize clerical and technical workers, mostly women, into a union at Harvard University.

That led her into the law, the better to counter management opposition.

She graduated from Cornell University Law School in 1993 and began practicing employment law for the now-defunct Haddonfield firm of Tomar, Simonoff, Adourian & O'Brien.

In 2000, she and Schall, another Tomar lawyer, left to strike out on their own.

"We had a couple of union clients, but not many," she said. Their niche was helping individuals who didn't have the protection of a union.

It's been a good match.

Last year, she and Schall wrote a primer for employment lawyers, with a descriptive, but excruciatingly dull, title: "Library of New Jersey Employment Law Forms." The book provides sample documents useful in a law practice, along with tips on how to use them.

The move to her own practice worked out personally as well.

"When I first had my kids, they stayed at my office with a babysitter," she said. "I feel blessed that I was able to experience being with my children for the first nine months.

"My partner jokes that I had a one-day maternity leave," she said.

She, her husband, and those children, a daughter, now 8, and son, 5, live in Marlton.

Barasch said her particular passion was helping people who are discriminated against because of their disabilities. Again, that stems from family experiences. Her mother lost her job as a high school counselor when she was fighting breast cancer.

"Her school assumed she wasn't going to survive and gave away her job," Barasch said. Her mother eventually got another job, "but I really remember that experience."

Since the recession, Barasch said, she has seen an increase in two types of cases - age discrimination against older workers and retaliation cases against those who complain about discrimination or harassment.

"When [companies] are looking to cut costs, who they want to get rid of are the people who cause trouble," she said. "Retaliation cases have a big jury appeal. It seems so wrong, so punitive."

Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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