Careers in Labour Law

A panel of experts spoke at the University of Western Ontario on careers in labour law on Feb. 14, 2008.

Melanie Warner, Partner, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (Toronto):
Mrs. Warner emphasized that large firms can represent both sides in labour disputes. She also said that disputes do not have to be characterized by animosity.

She has been with the firm since 1998 after graduating from UWO. She acts for employers and employees in the workplace, doing barrister and solicitor work in tribunals and courts.

She said not to get hung up by the distinction between management or union side firms. When large firms do not represent unions, it’s usually due to conflict of interests, not any ideological basis.

If a mediator or a judge is in your career aspirations, it is useful to demonstrate that you have represented clients on both sides.

Labour careers is not only litigation; it can also involve a lot of policy work and advising. In-house options are also good options after a few years in other areas of practice.

One advantage she finds in her firm is that it is like working in a boutique firm within a large firm. There are lots of resources and experts that she can draw on, even in other areas of practice.

She delegates a lot of the research and writing work, but does a lot more court work and client interaction.

Patrick Groom, Associate, Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP (Toronto)

Mr. Groom does a lot of arbitration work, but also a lot of research and prep work. His practice is broken into thirds: labour, criminal and construction.

He never anticipated the other areas of law, but in representing many regulated professionals he found that many of his cases crossed into these areas of practice.

He does hearings at the labour board, which involved individual grievances in a construction context, or the unions and their bargaining rates. Sometimes he addresses the existence of union as a whole.

What he thought he was going to be getting into, mostly labour arbitration, tended to be a much smaller part of his practice than he expected.

Because he is still a junior associate, much of his work includes shadowing a senior lawyer and coordinating activities.

Colin Johnston
, Labour Relations Officer, Ontario Nurses’ Association (Windsor)

A graduate of UofO law in 1997, he articled with Koskie Minskie, and then practiced independently in Windsor until joining the Nurses’ Association 5 years ago.

Mr. Johnston said that a lot of what is done in labour law is arbitration. The advantage of arbitration is there is more flexibility in evidence and a non-formal process. He does everything from discipline and termination cases to denial of LTD and insurance claims, requiring contractual interpretation. He likes dealing with people and their problems, and helping them address their problems. He gets satisfaction from making a difference in their lives.

Labour law is probably the purest form of litigation and advocacy. It involves a lot of traveling. A lot of his prep for cases occurs in coffee shops, which might not be as glamorous, but he gets different types of environments to practice his field.

Because labour law is such a small community, most practitioners on both sides get to know each other quite well. The relationships between union and management side lawyers tends to be better than adversarial relationships in other areas of law as a result.

A typical day can involve getting up very early for preparation if there is a trial that day. When in the office, he tends to do more solicitor type work. He usually works about 45 hours a week, but also has a earning cap. He’s happy because he has found balance in his life doing this type of work.

Trevor Rands, Solicitor, Legal Services Branch, Ministry of Labour (Toronto)

Mr. Rands spent some time in litigation before deciding it was not for him, and decided to move into public service. Initially he did policy work, and then moved into the Ministry of Labour branch. There are two practice groups there, litigation and prosecution, and the solicitor group. He obviously gravitated to the second group.

The three main areas of litigation work are

  1. prosecution under the Occupation and Health and Safety Acts
  2. Appeals of orders
  3. Coroner’s requests arising from fatalities at work

His work includes drafting of legislation and legal support to various clients in the Ministry with policy initiatives arising out of government commitments or cases. If there are any major legislative issues at hand, his work involves research, drafting, and meetings. Otherwise, he reviews documents that go public and opinion work.

The Ministry work does not take sides, but many of the initiatives depends on the political party in power. All parties institute changes in the name of restoring balance.

Although he feels that it is easier in the public sector to find work-life balance, there are trade-offs in compensation. The public interest component is what drives him.