Fernando Garcia’s timeless lesson from labour-relations class
Certain events have a tremendous impact on shaping both how you approach your own career and how you measure the effectiveness of others moving forward. Let me set the scene on one such experience early in my life.
As a young and ambitious labour-relations student at McGill University’s labour studies program, receiving high grades was not only my personal objective, but it was critical. I relied on scholarships to finance my studies and, considering that I had ambitions of completing a masters of industrial relations and then maybe applying to law school, I had to get the best grades possible. This meant working hard, dedicating myself to my studies and pulling all the stops for that much needed A or A+.
But things did not always go as planned. I remember it as if it was yesterday, the course was called collective bargaining and workplace dispute resolutions. This was an area of personal interest for me, so I had high expectations for this course. We were placed in groups and the main assignment consisted of conducting mock collective bargaining negotiations against another group of students. We represented the labour union. They were the management. As a group we put in a lot of work gathering data, developing arguments and preparing, such that when the negotiations took place, we were able to take advantage of the other side and their lack of awareness regarding specialized terms and concepts.
Unbeknownst to them, they accepted our argument that things like hyper-inflated COLA adjustments, retroactive increases and other items were standard and, when all of these were combined, it resulted in the equivalent of a 30-per-cent wage increase over the three-year agreement.
We were confident that, based on the outcome, we were surely going to get the best possible grade and may even get kudos from the professor for our impressive accomplishment.
However, the opposite occurred. We got a B on the assignment. This result was completely inconsistent with what we felt we deserved based on the outcome of the negotiations.
We made an appointment to speak with the professor as soon as possible. His explanation was clear and important to remember. He asked: “Did you, at all, contemplate how this relationship with management would be affected in the long term, once they discovered the errors they made and that you took full advantage of them? Could they even continue operating with the added costs of the agreement? Will any of your members be employed in the next year, two years or five years as a result of the challenges this will create in the operations? Did you really meet your client’s best long-term interests?”
That day, we all learned a very important labour-relations and professional lesson. Following, are some take-aways from this experience that I think fit neatly with regard to how we, as lawyers, deal with our clients, with suppliers, with customers, with other litigants and with other counsel.
As lawyers and in-house counsel, we must always act with integrity and we must be able to develop and count on certain level of trust with the other side. Not only is this generally a requirement of our professional obligations as lawyers (see 7.2-2 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct), but it also helps a lawyer establish a positive reputation.
Closely related to the point above, one’s reputation is worth its weight in gold and all reasonable steps should be taken to preserve it. It is important that in all we do, we remember that a reputation takes years to build and can be adversely impacted by a single act. Keep in mind that you are likely to have to interact with the other side and their counsel again. So it is important to represent your client to the best of your abilities but act ethically at all times.
Make sure that you understand clearly the objectives and best interest of your clients in both the short and long term. Consider how certain smaller victories will affect your ability to achieve longer-term objectives.
The role of the strategic counsel is very important. It often requires one to act as an intermediary between one’s clients and the other side. It is your responsibility to set clear expectations to what can be accomplished and the risks and possible litigation outcomes. In-house counsel must be the voice of reason in the boardroom and in directing their client through the legal and litigation process.
It is important to always remember who the client is and, ultimately, who will be judging your performance. While a specific individual within the client group may prefer a hardline approach, it is important to encourage and recommend alternatives, if in your best judgement you feel that a different approach is more likely to result in a better outcome.
Keep in mind that, sometimes, the client is not just your direct report. It might be shareholders, a parent company or other departments which may be adversely affected by that zero-sum gain approach. There is often pressure to engage in group think, where a lawyer feels pressure to conform to the thinking of the group or of their side. As a counsel, it is your role to challenge that thinking where it is in the best interests of the client, in the short or long term, to do so.
That labour relations class, while not resulting in the highest grade, became one of my most valuable educational experiences. I quickly learned the importance of always maintaining one’s integrity and of always looking at the best short- and long-term interests of your clients in every decision made. Most importantly, I learned that while you must aggressively represent and advance the best interest of your clients, there are ways that you can accomplish this without jeopardizing one’s reputation.