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Managing Partner: Boutiques: More economic and efficient?

|Written By Jim Middlemiss
Managing Partner: Boutiques: More economic and efficient?

Lawyer Roy Filion leads one of the country’s long-standing and leading labour boutiques, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, with offices in Toronto and London, Ont. He talks about the challenges and advantages to running a management-side labour firm in a growing world of national law firms and specialization within large legal practices.

Lawyer Roy Filion leads one of the country’s long-standing and leading labour boutiques, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, with offices in Toronto and London, Ont. He talks about the challenges and advantages to running a management-side labour firm in a growing world of national law firms and specialization within large legal practices.

What’s the biggest challenge to managing a labour boutique?
I think the biggest challenge for a boutique firm is to continue to attract the best legal talent available, especially if you are in a narrow specialty like labour law. The primary means of recruiting is the articling program and summer student programs.  It’s a fairly small pool of people willing to put all their eggs in one basket and look for a job in labour. From that pool, half go to the union side, some want the security of a big law firm and you’re left with even a smaller pool to compete for with other boutiques.

So how do you attract people?
We have a firm culture that I like to think is a little bit different than others. We’re more entrepreneurial. It’s a good atmosphere around the office and people like to work here. It’s a culture of inclusiveness.

What makes labour law a good business line for a boutique?
There is an appreciation [by clients] of specialized expertise within the boutique firms. There’s the ability to provide a high-quality product at a reasonable price — much less than the big firms. That’s particularly important to public-sector clients, municipalities, school boards, hospitals, government agencies and organizations that are wall-to-wall unionized. They spend 80 percent of their budget on payroll.

Where do boutiques find clients?
Because we are specialists, a lot of new work comes from referring lawyers. They may be other labour lawyers in Toronto or other law firms. Or they may be a corporate counsel who has labour problems. Other law firms are more inclined to refer the client to a boutique firm rather than a full-service firm because we don’t compete with them. Also, some of the large firms don’t have labour departments.
When it comes to labour work, what’s your firm’s mix?
We’re doing about 60–40. Sixty percent labour — including labour board hearings, labour arbitrations and collective bargaining — 40 percent employment law, wrongful dismissal, workers’ compensation, employment standards and related litigation.

How does a labour firm compete against full-service law firms that have their own labour department?
The big firms are overpriced for labour work, certainly in the public sector. You can run a boutique economically and efficiently. You don’t have to have the layers of management and administration that you do with large multi-services organizations. A boutique is much easier to manage and takes much less time to manage. Overheads are, generally speaking, much lower. I think at a boutique firm you naturally develop the skills for being more agile, more nimble — being able to multi-task better.

Who’s your biggest competition and why?
There is competition all over the place. There’s hardly a litigator in town who doesn’t consider himself or herself to have some expertise in employment law. It’s much different in labour law. There are few people who profess to have expertise in labour. Probably the main competition for firms like ours is the in-house law department. Some of them have specific groups that just do labour cases. They do a good job at routine work. Arbitrations and a lot of litigation are done in-house. Our challenge is to continue to demonstrate the value of having the work outsourced. It’s not a threat, it’s a challenge. It forces you to make sure you’re adding enough value to the service you are providing to convince those clients that they should be outsourcing that work.

What’s the key to wooing in-house counsel?
It’s important to work with the in-house group and become part of their team, and they become part of your team. Typically, we put together a team comprised of a senior lawyer from our firm and perhaps an associate, and then one to two people from the client’s legal team. It’s a mutual learning experience. We learn more about the client’s business and they learn more about the kind of proceedings we happen to be in.

What future issues will employers have to deal with that labour boutiques will be focusing on?
Psychological workplace harassment and privacy legislation in the private sector [will become important], as well as the Charter and the law of picketing and secondary picketing. There is a significant amount of evolution in the way the law is applied.

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