Jonathan Hancock, partner and shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC’s labor and employment practice group, feels fortunate to have been instructed in employment law by current Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. while attending law school at the University of Mississippi in the mid-1990s.
On the first day of class, Wharton walked in and stepped to the podium and said, “If you want job security as a lawyer after you graduate from law school, you should consider practicing in the employment law area because there will always be employers and there will always be employees and they will never get along.”
Hancock took the advice, and for the past 16 years he has represented employers when there is a conflict with employees.
“I really get satisfaction by being able to work out the disputes,” said Hancock, who deals with issues like employee counseling and termination, proactive employee training, and the handling of employee complaints and claims, whether made informally to the employer or filed as part of a lawsuit in state or federal courts across the country.
“Employment law is particularly dynamic, and there have been quite a few significant changes in the law that affect the employment relationship over the last five to 10 years,” he said. “We’ve seen changes surrounding the filing of lawsuits, settlement of lawsuits and the decision to take cases to trial.”
Five to seven years ago he saw reluctance in the legal community to take cases to trial because there were big verdicts coming out and employers did not want to take the risk.
“It seems like it has come full circle now, and we are seeing the trend change back with many more cases going to trial,” he said.
The past three years have been the busiest of Hancock’s career, following a few years of being forced to take on less traditional work due to rate pressures brought on by the faltering economy. Hancock made the decision to pursue a career in law as early as the ninth grade during high school. He was very active in strategic debate and mock trials during that time, and he was heavily influenced by his instructors leading those groups.
“I made an early decision that practicing law was what I wanted to do, and that decision never got derailed,” said Hancock, who attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and then graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1996.
After college he worked for a brief period at Ford & Harrison LLP and then spent nearly a decade working at Glankler Brown PLLC. Then in early 2010 he decided to join Baker Donelson.
“I gained more from 10 years at Glankler Brown than any 10 years anywhere else in my entire life, and I worked with some fantastic lawyers and wonderful people there,” he said. “The biggest catalyst for my move to Baker Donelson was the need for a larger geographic footprint for some clients that I was involved with.”
Specifically, Baker Donelson’s offices in Birmingham, Atlanta and Nashville were in close proximity to client sites that Hancock was already heavily traveling to, and then after 2010 the firm opened new offices in Houston and Orlando, also cities where Hancock was doing a good amount of work. This year Hancock is also serving as the president of Memphis Area Legal Services. MALS offers pro bono services for those in the community who are unable to pay for legal civil cases, including mortgages being wrongfully foreclosed, tenants being wrongfully evicted, domestic abuse situations and various issues for veterans.
Hancock sees his most important role as president to be the coordination of strategic fundraising efforts.
“Sometimes we simply do not have enough money to even keep the lawyers we have on staff employed full time, and we have never had anywhere close to enough money to provide all of the services that we would consider the most basic to all of the people in the community that need them,” he said. “MALS can barely serve one-third of the people that need it in our community.”
MALS is the primary beneficiary of the ongoing Campaign for Equal Justice, and it also receives funding from local lawyers and corporations through efforts of the bar association.
“One of my goals as board president is to increase the giving from other sectors of the community, like faith-based groups and other non-legal entities,” Hancock said.