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VOL. 123 | NO. 66 | Thursday, April 3, 2008

Baker Donelson Shareholder Discusses Employment, Civil Rights Law

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"You'd think after some 40 years (discrimination in the workplace) would begin to diminish, but it really hasn't."

- Maurice Wexler
Name: Maurice Wexler
Position: Shareholder
Firm: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC
Basics: Wexler has been named president-elect of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.

Maurice Wexler, a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz PC, has witnessed many changes in the law since he began practicing in 1964. Wexler, who concentrates his practice on labor and employment law, didn't deal much with employment law in the beginning; it didn't exist.

Now, Wexler finds himself preparing to lead an organization that focuses on the practice. He recently was named president-elect of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. Wexler will take the helm Jan. 1. The college is a nonprofit professional association that honors leading lawyers nationwide in the practice of labor and employment law.

Wexler has been honored for his work nationally with a local twist, when in 2006, members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee of the American Bar Association's Section of Labor and Employment Law established a fund honoring him. The Maurice Wexler Fund is used by the National Civil Rights Museum to subsidize a series of educational programs and lectures that explore the impact of the law and lawyers in today's society.

Q: What do you focus on in your labor and employment practice?

A: When I joined a law firm, it was 1964, and there was no employment law. There was only labor law, which was regulated by the National Labor Relations Board. It had to do with the relations between labor organizations, or unions, and employers. Then Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965, and that's when my practice started moving in the direction of employment law, which has to do with the prohibition of discrimination in the workplace, which there was a lot of it then. And there still is; you'd think after some 40 years it would begin to diminish, but it really hasn't.

Q: What are the demands of a labor and employment practice, especially in this economy?

A: You see often when the economy goes south, businesses become much more selective in who they keep and who they hire and who they promote. It's in that context that during this economic time, when the economy is not performing the way we want it to, there will sometimes be more complaints about being left out of the mainstream because of their race, or their sex, or those sorts of things. So there is some indirect proportion to the economy. When it's great and booming and everyone's got jobs, opportunity is abundant. When it gets tight, when the job market shrinks and people get much more selective, that's when the complaints often increase.

But the demands are not much different. You have to be able to communicate, and I've always suggested that the triple A's of successful lawyering is being able, available and affable. And that doesn't change, ever.

Q: What does the honor of the
Maurice Wexler Fund mean to you?

A: It's just a very, very big honor to have been thought well of enough by my colleagues to establish a fund in my name and my honor. Essentially, (it's) recognizing the work we have done for many years advancing civil rights and justice. Recognizing that work at the Civil Rights Museum was just one of the greatest honors of my time.

Q: What do you feel is the impact of the law and lawyers on society today?

A: It's really critical; it connects you with our system of justice. Our job is to ensure that those who require the assistance of the law receive it. In many ways, I think we're the guardians of our democracy and of our liberty. We're the ones that argue these evident cases in the courts, including the Supreme Court. It's through the lawyers that the justice system works. If you have a complaint, we're the ones who are supposed to be able to help resolve it, even without the intervention of the courts; but if we can't do it otherwise, then we do have the judicial process to solve disputes, including those involving civil rights. There's a whole lot of civil rights litigation still going on, and the lawyers are the ones who do it.

Q: As the current chair of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers Board of Governors Credentials Committee, what do you look for when reviewing nominees for election as a Fellow?

A: The nominators come from all over the nation. They look for significant contributions to the advancement of labor and employment law and justice, they look for community participation (and) for scholarship. We are the ones that go through all these nominations - sometimes we have 100, sometimes 150 - and come up with our recommendations to the Board of Governors, who then review it all again. But we're the gatekeepers to the board. Also, you have to have practiced for 20 years to be nominated as a fellow.

Q: Is there any case - historical or current - that you would have liked to have been the counsel on?

A: That is a really interesting question. The ones that would fascinate me the most would be the earlier ones challenging whether Title 7 was constitutional. There were challenges to that, believe it or not. But, of course, it was held to be constitutional. But I would have liked to have been counsel for the persons arguing that it was constitutional and become part of the law of the land. There are a whole lot of great cases out there, but that's one that I think would have been fascinating.

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