Employment lawyers say March, April and the long months that followed were the busiest of their career as employers scrambled to shift their workers to home offices, considered layoffs and wage cuts amid a total shutdown of business or adapted their workplaces to comply with new requirements wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the peak of chaos and uncertainty has passed, but long-time employment law partner Craig Rix says the fall will be just as busy: Some clients are looking for advice on the occupational health and safety implications of making permanent shifts to a work-from-home model while others, under more distress, are weighing restructuring or insolvency proceedings and must consider the labour law impact.
“We are projecting lawyer billable hours to increase substantially this fall,” says Mr. Rix, who was tapped last week to take over as managing partner at Toronto-based Hicks Morley, one of Canada’s largest management-side employment and labour law firms with more than 120 lawyers in five offices across Ontario.
Hearings that were pushed back when the courts closed or heard only urgent matters are now going ahead, as are private arbitrations that were postponed as companies turned their attention to pressing human-resource matters.
Separately, clients are seeking guidance on policies to promote diversity and equity in the wake of the societal reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.
“Anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination are not new issues, but there’s obviously been a renewed emphasis or spotlight on the issue. We’ve got a lot of clients who are responding to that," Mr. Rix said.
Hicks Morley posted a statement on social media on June 1, acknowledging both “horrendous anti-Black racism” and the beginning of Pride month. “We can be better. We must be better,” it said.
The firm does not keep statistics on the diversity of its work force. Mr. Rix said it has implemented a number of initiatives to advance diversity and inclusion, including involvement with external affinity groups such as the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and unconscious bias training for lawyers involved in recruitment. All firm members recently took part in a training session on communication led by an external consultant.
“As we would advise our clients, training is a start, but the key is to apply what you learn,” he said. “Admittedly, we still have work to do in this regard, but we are pointed in the right direction.”
Mr. Rix, 53, will become the fifth managing partner in Hicks Morley’s 48-year history on Jan. 1, taking over from Stephen Shamie, who has held the post for 18 years and been at the firm since he was a summer law student in 1985.
“I decided it was time for me to step down,” said Mr. Shamie, 63, who announced his plans to transition out of the managing partner role in June, although he will continue to practise law.
Hicks Morley has grown quickly in recent years, but opted to remain independent in the face of a wave of consolidation of Canadian law firms that took place over the past decades, with international players such as Dentons and Norton Rose Fulbright entering the domestic market.
“We had been approached over the last 10 years by a number of firms coming into Canada who wanted to partner with us,” Mr. Shamie said.
Mr. Rix said Hicks Morley’s relatively large size for a boutique gives it the scale to invest in the technology, information management and security systems that clients expect from leading law firms.
As the pandemic took hold, some law firms imposed temporary wage cuts on associate lawyers and staff, but Mr. Rix said Hicks Morley was so busy that wasn’t necessary. “We knew that some on the street were having to make those tough choices.”
Having witnessed the firm’s expansion first-hand (there were 40 lawyers when he joined in the 1990s), Mr. Rix said he will consult with his partners about priorities when he officially becomes managing partner, but added: "I want to be part of helping this firm grow to its next stage.”
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