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The employment law landscape is undergoing rapid change, and the awardees of Canadian HR Reporter’s 5-Star Employment Lawyers and Law Firms of 2023 are at the sharp end. They are supporting HR leaders, employers, and employees to navigate a dynamic labour environment.
Canada’s HR leaders who took part in CHRR’s survey listed reasons for why they engage this year’s 5-Star Employment Lawyers and Law Firms:
“All lawyers are going to be competent and will be able to tell you what the law is. What sets good lawyers apart from most lawyers is someone’s advice that you can trust”
Lai-King Hum, Hum Law Firm
The 31 employment lawyers and 26 employment law firms are not only recognized as best-in-class by clients who have retained them, but also by the peers who would confidently recommend their abilities. The 2023 honorees’ legal peers, consulted in CHRR’s survey, said of them:
“The best employment lawyers or firms are the ones that have been diligent and intentional to stay on top of the rapidly evolving changes that have impacted the workplace,” says Laura Williams, managing partner at Williams HR Law LLP. “They go beyond simply advising their clients of what they can and cannot do, but also provide them with how they can navigate risks and exposures to liability while meeting their strategic objectives.”
Hum Law Firm’s principal and senior lawyer, Lai-King Hum, utilizes an effective strategy to enable her clients to benefit. She notes that one of the biggest challenges for her employer clients is staying current and in compliance with “lightning quick changes to the law”.
The 5-Star winner and her team at the boutique employment law firm in Toronto produce employer alerts immediately after important changes to the law, a value-added service her clients say often beats the bigger firms in terms of speed.
“We care about our clients, and it is something that requires us to be on our toes to keep track of all the changes and the case law,” Hum says.
The top employment law firm represents employers and employees, although Hum handles more of the employer-side cases. It’s an ongoing relationship she refers to as a “mini marriage”.
Hum is also a seasoned investigator and has done a range of investigations, including representing employees who have made complaints as well as representing the people about whom the employees have complained.
The last few years have seen a rise in workplace harassment and discrimination complaints, and Hum has acted as the investigator in those cases to assess whether a complaint has been substantiated. She has earned a sterling reputation as an adept third-party mediator who can assess what both sides want while finding common ground.
In CHRR’s survey, respondents gave Hum a rating of 99.4%. One-third of HR leaders surveyed said they had worked with Hum and her firm the most in the past two years.
“One of the pleasurable things, for me, is when an individual client refers others,” says Hum.
“Nobody practices dentistry on their own teeth so nobody should practice law on their own, even lawyers. Everybody needs support and advice from a third-party perspective”
Nancy Shapiro, Koskie Minsky LLP
Richard B. Johnson, partner at Ascent Employment Law Corporation, emphasizes that delivering for clients cannot be understated. He says, “A really great employment law firm will be very practical, they will find solutions for their clients. You don't want to have to pay out claims and create bad precedence, so they're very good at managing risk and giving practical advice.”
Two-time best employment lawyer Nancy Shapiro, a partner at award-winning firm Koskie Minsky LLP, specializes in labour and employment law and has earned the respect of her peers.
A survey respondent describes Shapiro and her colleagues as “not only excellent lawyers, but they are practical and professional in all of their dealings with counsel, whether on the same side or opposing”.
Shapiro was drawn to employment law because she enjoyed the personal nature of the work and felt she could make a difference in her clients’ lives, whether they were individuals or corporations.
“Employee clients tend to be somewhat emotional from time to time, but I encourage them to think of their issue as a business issue and deal with it that way,” she explains. “But I do feel like I’m a quasi-therapist sometimes.”
Shapiro acknowledges that small and medium-sized employers face significant challenges in keeping pace with the changes in employment law.
The firm runs client seminars, sends out bulletins, and regularly posts employment law updates to its blog to encourage clients to reach out for advice before they act.
“We can give quick advice on matters that is a cost-effective way for even small employers because we know what we’re talking about and we don’t need to research things,” says Shapiro.
One of the changes brought about by the pandemic that sparks ongoing discussion among Hum’s employer clients is the shift to hybrid work. That presents the unique challenge of how to monitor employees working from home when employers have an obligation under the Employment Standards Act to keep track of hours and overtime.
“It’s not so much a legal issue because everyone knows they’re supposed to keep track of hours, but it’s a practical issue,” she explains. “How do you do it when people are working from home? You’re not going to put in a monitor in a private home.”
So, what sets Hum and her firm apart in a crowded field of contenders in this year’s best employment lawyers and law firms?
“For the most part, all lawyers are going to be competent and will be able to tell you what the law is,” she says. “What sets good lawyers apart from most lawyers is someone’s advice that you can trust. I have enough base of experience to guide you through the situation to the practical solution that takes into consideration what the client wants.”
This is echoed by Johnson. “It should be a relationship. You should be able to ask anything of your employment lawyer and if it's something that they can handle, great. If it's something they can't handle, you want a lawyer who's going to provide a trusted referral.”
The most common issues that have come across Shapiro’s desk in the past year deal with employee terminations and exits, specifically in the areas of restrictive covenant agreements and executive compensation plans. This represents a major shift from the hiring issues that preceded it.
However, perhaps the biggest challenge for employees in getting access to justice is the judicial and court system itself. “It is expensive to properly litigate an action and it takes a long time,” says Shapiro.
While most employment cases settle before trial, Shapiro has noticed over the last several years that there’s more willingness by companies to take matters to trial and cause the employees to go the distance.
“I don’t know if that’s just a trend that’s going to flip again, but I think it might be related to the fact that the whole court system is so backlogged and [employers] can take advantage of the time that it takes to get a matter to court,” she explains.
Shapiro has represented her peers when they are departing law firms and she prides herself on her ability to stick-handle matters promptly – and with great results.
“Nobody practices dentistry on their own teeth, so nobody should practice law on their own, even lawyers. Everybody needs support and advice from a third-party perspective,” she says. “We excel in assisting employers and employees in getting the right strategic plan for their needs and helping them work toward that desired outcome in the best way possible.”
To determine the best lawyers and law firms catering to the employment industry, Canadian HR Reporter sourced feedback from HR leaders over a period of 15 weeks. The research team began by conducting a survey with a wide range of HR leaders to determine what they value in the law firms they collaborate with. The in-depth information gleaned from this survey enabled the research team to assign weighted values to the services offered by law firms to their employment clients.
The research team also spoke to hundreds of employment professionals across the country by phone, asking them to rate the employment law firms and lawyers they had worked with over the previous 12 months. In addition, the team sought the opinions of employment lawyers themselves to find out which law firms they would recommend besides their own.
At the end of the research period, the law firms and lawyers that received the highest rankings in work quality, specialist expertise, and client service were declared 5-Star award winners in the field of employment law.