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Going from strength to strength

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

Andrew Tremayne is the managing partner of Ottawa labour and employment law boutique Emond Harnden. Since the firm’s inception in 1987, it has grown from three to 24 lawyers. He talks to Canadian Lawyer about how the largest boutique of its kind in the nation’s capital goes from strength to strength.

There are two sides to labour law — management and labour — which side is Emond Harnden on and how did it end up on that side of the equation?

We are on the management or employer side. Simply a function of the practices and backgrounds of the two founding partners [Lynn Harnden and Jacques Emond]. They were both doing the same thing so that’s how the practice evolved. It’s simply proved to be a really great niche, a really great boutique, a really great side of the practice to be on. Some management-side firms, on the employment law side, do both employee and employer side on the basis that it’s just litigation and you can do either plaintiff- or defendant-side litigation. We limit ourselves to just the defendant side, so just the employer side on the employment law side. On the labour side, it’s either always union side or management/employer.

Who would your clients be?

We’ve got public sector, private sector, federally regulated, provincially regulated, Crown corporations large and small, blue chip national organizations and corporations to small local businesses and anything in between.

Tell me a bit of the background of how you got the managing partner role in this firm.

I initially started out with in a co-managing partner role. There had been a managing partner when the firm was founded and he continued for many years and then there was a successor. When the successor had been there for about two years, it became clear that the job was becoming a little too big for one person to do on a part-time basis, which is the model for the managing partner: practising while managing the firm. So I became co-managing partner.

My areas of responsibility were: the firm’s human resources — so all the staffing, articling process, dealing with the associates plus the professional development — and also the marketing and advertising and business development side. My co-partner kept the finance side and the infrastructure, the building, the IT, that kind of thing. Then after two years . . . my co-managing partner decided that he wanted to go back to practising law full time, so I stepped into the other half of the co-job.

Do you still practise?

I spend about half my time practising and half my time managing the firm. It’s about a 50-50 split. I balance it with difficulty but it seems to have steady, regular things that require my attention all the time, then there are things that are cyclical. So those are the times where, on the practice side, I have to pull back a little and spend more time on the management side — during articling, during budget preparation time.

The rest of the time, I do the regular sort of stuff and my practice expands — as it always will — to fill whatever other time you have. It just means I have to be very careful in terms of planning. But it’s not much different from when I started my family with kids. All of a sudden, when you have a working spouse with kids, you have to be much more disciplined in terms of budgeting and managing your time. It’s just like that, only taken to the next level.

What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges and rewards of managing your firm?

Anybody will tell you that the people side is the most challenging, the most time consuming, and it is also the most rewarding. Those are the things that are, by their nature, unpredictable and always challenging to manage. It’s also, a little bit of a gloss on the people thing, is trying to keep everyone moving in the same direction in terms of a common vision, in terms of a common mission, and in terms of how we’re going to carry that out. And trying to keep everybody on the same side and moving in the same direction is quite challenging but at the same time is very rewarding when it happens.

The other challenging thing, I would say, is managing the growth. The firm has grown steadily. Managing that and trying to anticipate that and stay ahead of the curves. When you do that well, it’s very satisfying. When you realize you haven’t done as well as you might, it’s a little hair-raising, but that’s okay!

Do you see growth ahead for your firm?

I do. I see the same, steady growth that we’ve experienced. We’ve been through several downturns, recessions, boom-bust cycles, whatever you want to call them. And we’ve always emerged stronger with as many or more people than we entered those cycles with. I think that’s partly the nature of this niche. But I also think it’s partly the nature of our presence in this market, our being very well respected and established in this market for what we do.

In terms of Toronto-size boutique, we would be pretty far down the list. In Ottawa, we’re the largest boutique of this nature, by far. And, in fact, we’re probably about the ninth or 10th largest firm of any kind in Ottawa. . . . Here we are a very healthy robust size.

Some areas of practice don’t do well in a recession, how does labour and employment law usually fare?

It usually fares very well because you have organizations going through downsizings or restructurings. Most organizations need advice on their employment and labour law obligations when they do those kinds of exercises. We often see an increase in labour arbitration. So there could be an increase in the number of grievances in unionized employers because [when] people are not getting robust salary increases, they will be looking to advance themselves in other ways. There’ll be job competition grievances because the stakes are higher.

The nature of the work changes. You’re not doing as many employment contracts. You’re not doing as many employment policies because firms aren’t necessarily expanding. You’re dealing with change in the workforce regardless of whether it’s a boom or a bust. The other thing we [have] seen an increase in is unionization, union organizing campaigns. Employees are nervous about their job security, so they often go and seek a union. We deal with that, with the collective bargaining and things like that. A gloss on that: we have a very healthy mix of the public and private sector. So you’ve got a private sector that’s going to see much greater expansion or contractions in downturns. They’ll be looking to tighten their budgets as well.

On the public sector side: universities, school boards; those are pretty stable in their size but you do see a change in the nature of their grievances.

Do you have a system for business development for your lawyers?

We have regular quarterly meetings of all the lawyers. We review trends, locally, trends among our clients. We examine business development opportunities that are out there in our market. And we provide employees, on an ongoing basis, advice in the form of a toolkit on key business development skills that you need.

We are a young firm, we are an entrepreneurial firm so I make sure that all of the lawyers have the tools that they need in terms of how they develop a plan, what are the effective strategies for developing your own network and your own client base, those kinds of things. It’s a mix of group and working with everyone together and then working with individuals in terms of their particular skills needs. Some people are naturals in terms of networking and coming up with a business development plan. Some people need more guidance in terms of how do you do it and how do you stay on top of it.

Everybody is a little bit different and we try and give people the resources that they need to be as successful as they can.

For a practising lawyer, what do you feel are the pros and cons of working at a firm of Emond Harnden’s size?

I think that our firm at our size, we still have a small-firm feel. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s practising the same kind of law so everybody is interested in the same legal developments, and everybody’s interested in the same outcomes in terms of people’s files. Most of our growth comes from hiring articling students but we have done some lateral hires.

Those who have come from the labour and employment law departments of national firms, just love the environment because they’re now surrounded by people who are doing the same kinds of things, who love the same type of law that they do. You’ve got lots of people to discuss and bounce ideas off and get ideas for best practices and things like that. That’s in terms of the practice of law in a boutique. I think it would be the same in any boutique.

In terms of our size: I think we’re a sweet spot and will continue to be for a while, where we have the size and the bench strength to service a client of any size. The biggest client, we can service their needs in terms of our bench strength but we’re also, again, not so big that people don’t know what’s happening in everybody’s life and everybody else’s practices.

It’s not the same as when there were five, eight, or 10 lawyers when everybody met for lunch everyday but everybody still knows who everybody is very well. We’re very social and a very cohesive group. You have that small-firm feel with that big firm, blue-chip pull in terms of the clientele.

Your firm conducts a lot of seminars. How did that come about and what are their benefits for your firm?

We have a very robust breakfast seminar program. Those started out, let’s say there’s a new piece of legislation, an amendment to the Labour Relations Act for example, and we’re all fielding calls from clients about what do these changes mean. So you gradually realize that if we pooled all our resources and invited all our clients into a room at once, we can develop a really good presentation and then all the clients would have this great content.

We wouldn’t each individually be reinventing the wheel.

Then you realize, well not only can you invite your current clients but get the word out and invite prospective clients who might like to come and take a look and see what you might have to offer. Then you realize you can broaden out. You don’t just have to do the new legislative changes. You can do an update on a quickly developing area of the law like the duty to accommodate. There’s always a thirst for what’s the latest in terms of the employer’s obligation in terms of duty to accommodate or managing health issues in the workplace.

Then you realize, we can do an arbitration year in review. We can have a seminar every year where we review the highlights in terms of the previous year’s arbitration awards. It gradually just sort of developed a structure where we do five of these a year over breakfast for free for the clients. Then occasionally a client will ask if we can come and do a one-day, in-depth presentation on managing employee stress leave claims, for example. We say, ‘sure we can do that.’ Then you realize we’ve done that and perhaps there’s a bigger market for that type of one-day program. You advertise it, and there it is.

At that point, you can put a huge amount of firm time and resources into a program like that. You have to balance the client’s expectations, treating your clients well, making sure they all have the most up-to-date information with the lawyers’ time, and our research department’s time in terms of preparing all those things so that they’re perfect.

Are there other services beyond the ordinary scope of legal?

We do an electronic e-mail alert every couple of weeks. We’ll send out a short summary of a recent court decision or a recent legislative development. Then all of those are archived on our web site. Like most organizations now, maintaining a robust web site is of a huge benefit to your clients. They can go and find quick information, simple questions, or those kinds of updates on recent developments and recent cases.

What they do is take us out of the traditional hourly rate thing where a client has to pay to have access to the information. Where they are complicated you end up getting into the typical hourly rate scenario but these are things that are a little bit outside and in addition to that.

What would you say to a law student to convince them that labour and employment law would be a worthy practice?

I would say that it’s evolving very quickly along with society. It has a fascinating human element to it because you’re dealing with people, with people’s careers, with the workplace, an essential part of everyone’s existence. If you want to work in an area of the law where you have an opportunity to help clients improve their workplaces, then it’s a great area of the law. And it’s great to do it in a boutique where everybody around you gets excited and is engaged in the same kind of legal issues and the same kind of issues that you’re engaged in.

Any other unique aspects of your firm?

We have a dedicated research department. These are non-lawyers who are very skilled researchers who have access to a tremendous body of knowledge. That helps us to keep the clients’ costs down because they’re not paying lawyers to do research. It also frees up associates and students to do more of the work directly with the clients; meeting with them, discussing things with them as opposed to doing pure research and preparing memoranda. That contributes to the environment here in terms of what people contribute here in terms of their day and their time.

It also provides great value to our clients. That’s one thing that we’ve nurtured in our firm over the years. We have three full-time and two part-time [researchers] so it’s a meaningful part of the firm.