Fiona Leppan is a director of the employment practice. She has extensive experience in the field of employee relations, both from a litigation perspective and in terms of strategic planning. Training and development in this field has been a focal point. She has actively trained clients on how to deal with internal disputes and to conduct inquiries and arbitrations. She has also established entire dispute resolution processes for a number of mining houses where disputes were dealt with by way of private conciliation and arbitration. Fiona works in various industries including mining, metals, engineering, retail, broadcasting, financial services and the commercial distributive trade.
Describe your career to date.
It has been a particularly rewarding one. I continue to increase my knowledge base and my career has encouraged me to constantly remain on that growth path. My LLM degree, obtained with distinction, is an example of that commitment that my career has promoted. I have met some truly outstanding business people, trade unionists and other stakeholders and always promoting the resolution of some really difficult issues.
What do you enjoy most about working in the field of employment law?
Employment law impinges upon many other fields of law. This promotes challenges and a deep understanding of legal principles beyond the basics of this field. Human capital is a key asset in any business and hence the pre-eminence of this field of law.
On what types of matters are clients most frequently coming to you at present?
Sexual/racial harassment; transformation; employment equity compliance; organisational rights disputes; complicated collective bargaining disputes; and occupational health and safety advice.
You work on both the contentious and advisory sides of employment law. How do these two parts of your practice complement one another?
In difficult disputes that are often contentious, the challenge is how to bring parties closer together to resolve matters. Even the most intractable positions can result in a resolution. The key is to find that middle ground.
How has employment law changed since you started practising?
In the 70s and 80s, employment law was merely governed by the 1956 Labour Relations Act, whereas now there is a raft of legislation – and, indeed, our Constitution – that impacts this area, making it a mature and comprehensive body of law that is fully abreast of international developments. In line with this, we have dedicated courts staffed by judges of the highest standard with a concomitant body of case law.
What do clients look for in an effective employment lawyer?
Efficiency; speed; effective advice, especially advice that can resolve matters at the earliest point in time to avoid unnecessary litigation.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
Representing and participating in the Marikana Commission of Inquiry for a major client. In as much as that remains a scar on South Africa’s constitutional democracy, it was a humbling experience and the opportunity to work with some outstanding jurists.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in the field?
You must be committed to the fundamentals of employment law. You must be prepared to work very hard and often your time is not your own. It is a rewarding career if you are prepared to constantly seek creative new ways to deal with workplace issues.
Fiona Leppan is a director in the firm’s employment practice. She has extensive experience in the field of employee relations, both from a litigation perspective and in terms of strategic planning. Training and development in this field has been a focal point. Fiona has actively trained clients on how to deal with internal disputes and conduct inquiries and arbitrations. She has also established entire dispute resolution processes for a number of mining houses where disputes were dealt with by way of private conciliation and arbitration. Fiona works in various industries including mining, metals, engineering, retail, broadcasting, financial services and the commercial distributive trade. She has also been involved in occupational health and safety work.
What attracted you to a career in employment law?
Employment law has an impact on all fields of law – contract, delict, administrative, commercial transactions, occupational health and safety, and social security – which makes it a dynamic area of law. It is fascinating to live through the substantial changes in society which have an impact on employment law issues at the workplace.
What qualities make for a successful employment lawyer?
One must understand the basic principles of employment law and have a good command of the statutory law and case law. One must be attentive to a client’s needs, but also appreciate that this branch of the law is based in equity and fairness. One must be able to be objective.
What did you find most challenging about establishing a practice in the field?
No two cases are ever the same. Each new dispute brings new challenges, so being able to adjust to changing circumstances, which often occur quickly, is key.
How has the approach to workplace health and safety changed since you started your career?
Trade unions are much now more active in this field, which is a positive sign as they too have a role to play in reducing workplace accidents. There is a strong move towards self-regulation where employers establish codes of practice and standard operating procedures, within the parameters of the law, with an emphasis on training to reduce risk.
What steps can companies take to tackle the gender pay gap issue?
The emphasis has to be on skills development, the upliftment of standards and establishing fair remuneration policies with incentivised pay components.
How do you think the gig economy will develop in light of heightened scrutiny from authorities?
It will put pressure on employers to develop flexible working arrangements and be creative about how to measure productivity and output where more work can be done remotely outside of a traditional work environment, but remain within the bounds of fair labour practice.
As director of the firm’s employment practice, what are your priorities for the team’s development over the next five years?
Learning and development, with an emphasis on building young practitioners to become competent and formidable forces in their areas of expertise. Growth in the team is extremely important to meet clients’ expectations and requirements.
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
“Claw the facts” of a case. Ensure that you are well versed in those facts before giving advice or litigating about a dispute.