When Michelle Henry was an idealistic law student at the University of Toronto, she always imagined she’d go into human-rights law. That never happened, but only because she found another way to put her social-values to work — as a management-side labour and employment lawyer.
“I make sure my clients act as good employers,” says Henry, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto. This is good for society and for each client’s bottom line. After all, media headlines and protracted court cases about workplace mismanagement are never good for business. Here, Henry explains how she helps her clients with a proactive approach.
How do you prevent your clients from landing in court?
“The best way to handle a crisis is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” says Henry. “As a result, much of my work is proactive rather than reactive.”
For instance, if a client is planning staffing changes or a series of dismissals, Henry makes sure they have a clear justification for their choices — ideally, with supporting documents. This protects them against possible charges of discrimination, but it also ensures that the employees are treated fairly and with respect.
But despite the best efforts of any lawyer, there will be some disputes. What are the everyday files you handle?
Henry sees a high number of wrongful-dismissal cases. For instance, if a recently terminated employee claims that her severance package is inadequate, she gets a call. “I’d work with the employer to determine whether the package really was unfair,” she says.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Henry has also seen an uptick in workplace harassment cases. Allegations that, in the past, might not have been taken seriously, are now more likely to trigger a full investigation. “A lot of employers now have zero-tolerance policies,” says Henry.
How do you handle allegations of harassment?
“I go in as an independent investigator,” says Henry. “I set up interviews with the complainant, the witnesses, and the respondent. In the end, I provide the client with a report saying who I believe based on the balance of probabilities.” If she determines that misconduct likely occurred, the employer may also ask her to recommend disciplinary actions, such as mandatory anti-harassment training or dismissal.
What are the advantages of a career in labour and employment law?
You’ll get diverse cases, sane hours (Henry doesn’t work on weekends), and the chance to strategize with clients. “I’m far more than just a lawyer to them,” she says. “At times, I feel as if I’m their business partner.”
The field is also uncommonly stable. Whether companies are expanding, downsizing or restructuring, they need legal counsel to do it well. “I know I’ll always have work,” says Henry, “no matter what state the economy is in.”