Making the case for legal benefits

Buying a house. Dealing with a death in the family. Going through a nasty divorce.

These life challenges increase employee stress and contribute to a decline in morale and productivity. Some employers are helping by providing a relatively unique benefit to employees: free and discounted legal services.

In the mid-1980s, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) was one of the first to make the push for an employer-paid legal services plan. In 1984 the CAW signed a deal with General Motors of Canada that started the ball rolling.

The next year, Ford signed on and DaimlerChrysler followed suit in early 1986. Over the years, many other automotive-related firms signed on. Now, the CAW’s legal services plan covers about 108,000 workers and their families in 36 different bargaining groups.

Employees covered by the plan always have a lawyer just a phone call away. A lot of services, such as wills, real estate, mortgages, leases and family law, are covered 100 per cent by the plan. Other services are offered at a reduced rate or are free for a set number of hours.

“There’s some restrictions,” said Sym Gill, the director of CAW’s pensions and benefits department. “It’s used for the run-of-the-mill family-type legal services. Things like real estate, consumer and debtor issues, family law, mostly that kind of thing. Things like criminal law are pretty much excluded.”

Legal services are provided in a number of ways. The plan has 26 staff lawyers in nine offices around Ontario and Quebec and another 75 support staff. The plan has also signed agreements with about 1,000 outside lawyers. Employees can even choose their own lawyers, but must pay the costs upfront and submit the bills for reimbursement.

Gill said having one plan that covers so many companies, makes it a much more efficient service.

“The beauty of the plan is that, from the employer’s point of view, there is virtually nothing to do other than to make contributions and supply the plan with eligibility lists,” he said.

All the employers come under the same umbrella as the Big Three automakers in order to get the economies of scale, so even smaller companies get the same benefits.

Gill said getting employers to take on a legal services plan is really no different than negotiating other types of benefits.

“If an employer is in trouble and has problems and is trying to contain costs, then it’s an issue,” said Gill. “It’s like any other benefit in a sense, although you do have to educate employers. You have to teach them about the intricacies of the plan.”

Work-life balance

Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, said while she hasn’t seen any research that looks at the impact of a legal services plan, it makes sense that it helps employees achieve work-life balance.

“One of the things we know that helps is having accessible, convenient services,” said Spinks. That includes any service that assists employees in managing multiple responsibilities such as child care, elder care and financial responsibilities.

“You need a lawyer for several things in your lifetime,” she said. “Many of those are inherently stressful and can manifest themselves in the workplace in a number of different ways from absenteeism to lack of focus.”

For example, if an employee is dealing with an estate, then there’s just been a death in the family and that means they’ve probably taken some bereavement leave.

“By not having to find a lawyer or run around and go to meetings, it certainly can be a major stress reliever,” said Spinks.

Measuring return-on-investment with a legal services plan can be tough, she said.

“Can employers do a direct correlation to an immediate return-on-investment as a direct relationship? Probably, in some cases, yes,” she said. “But the bottom line is if you’re selling a house and you’ve got to sign the papers and the closing date is today, chances are you’re going to be a little scattered to begin with.”

She compared a legal services plan to insurance in that it’s nice to have, but it’s not used often.

“It tends to be episodic,” said Spinks. “So you have a divorce. That happens once, maybe twice. You buy a house. That happens once, maybe twice while you’re holding a particular job. You have a death in the family. There’s one or two of those you’ll have to deal with in the peak of your career. It’s infrequent, but it’s very intense when it happens.

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