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Lawrence Blades, author of seminal employment law article, visits Iowa Law

Blades with Vandervelde and Agrawal

Lawrence Blades, former Iowa Law dean and the author of one of the most significant, influential, and predictive articles in employment law recently visited the law school for a special celebration.

Blades, who wrote the 1967 article, "Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power," sat down with Iowa Law students from Lea VanderVelde’s employment law class on Wednesday, Nov. 18 to discuss both his inspiration for the article, and the reaction that followed.

In brief, the article questioned the legal rule that gives employers absolute power to fire their employees.  Blades analyzed the problems with a legal rule that makes employees so dependent upon employers as to threaten their freedom.

“Blades’s article is one of the rare law review articles that was so far ahead of its time, that Blades actually predicted the development of the case law over the next half century. He predicted what avenues of law would expand, and what forces would curtail development,” says VanderVelde. “The article is a classic.  It reads as well today as it did then.  But in 1967, no one had critiqued the power that employers hold over employees under the at-will rule. Fifty years and hundreds of cases later it now seems like common knowledge.”

The article, which is approaching its 50th anniversary (in 2017) is the most cited article in the field of employment law.  It has been cited no fewer than 489 times since its publication in the Columbia Law Review 48 years ago, including: 107 times in court opinions and 363 times by law reviews.

Blades said he was inspired to write the article after a discussion with a colleague, and then-engineering professor at the University of Kansas who relayed an incident from a former job in which he felt pressured by his employer to sign off on something he was not comfortable with.

“As an engineer, he was asked to put his professional stamp of approval on some plans he thought wouldn’t work and he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t get fired, but he said something like ‘Well, there ought to be a law,’ and eventually they got someone else to do it,” Blades said. “I remember him very well – I never did thank him directly for sparking the idea. I was not privy to, but was aware of some lawyers who had been asked to back-date documents and there were other situations that started to pop up in my mind.”

Today that scenario is commonly known as retaliatory discharge.  

When he wrote the article, Blades said he worried about the limits of his idea.

“I was very concerned and I did not want to unduly compromise the freedom of an employer to deal with employees,” Blades says. “I was thinking about the more egregious and obvious examples, where employers were clearly overstepping their bounds.”

The group also discussed how employers using social media to monitor and discharge their employees for statements they make online.

“Social media is a means of communication, and I never contemplated a corporation or employer having so much interest in speech or what employees did — it’s a thin line with political and religious beliefs — but if an employee says something really embarrassing, it’s not just something that they shouldn’t have done because it embarrasses the company, but something very egregious that damages the company’s reputation. It’s a hard line to draw,” Blades said.

“I can’t say social media is none of the employer’s business, because by definition it’s open and there are times when behavior outside of the office impacts a company — I mean, look at some of the football players with the NFL.”

Ultimately, VanderVelde said she hopes that meeting Blades will help her students see that an entire field of law can owe its origin to the ideas of one man.

“An idea can really have a lasting effect.  Blades’ work proves the value of writing law review articles about justice and writing well because those ideas matter.” VanderVelde said.

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