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Anatomy of an employment lawyer

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“Work is one of the most fundamental aspects in a person’s life, providing the individual with a means of financial support and, as importantly, a contributory role in society. A person’s employment is an essential component of his or her sense of identity, self worth and emotional well being.”

These words were penned nearly 30 years ago by former Chief Justice Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada. These words moved me when I first read them at law school nearly 15 years ago. They are the reason I decided to become an employment lawyer. They still move me and are the reason I am an employment lawyer all these years later. They are also the words by which I guide my practice.

Whether we employ others or are employed by others, work impacts on every aspect of a person’s life and is the single most powerful and concrete way we contribute to society. This is undoubtedly the reason we have such a complex legal framework that must be navigated by every employment relationship: employment standards, labour relations, pay equity, occupational health and safety, workers’ compensation, human rights, and privacy laws all have a direct and palpable incidence on our lives as employers and employees.

I started my career representing employees exclusively. I was an enforcer – when an employer failed to follow the rules, I was called in to represent an employee who may not otherwise have a strong voice in the conflict. My job was to return control to employees in circumstances in which they feel it has been wrested from them. This was particularly the case where they had suffered discrimination at the hands of their employer or had had their employment terminated (often both at the same time). My role was to help my client regain, in the words of former Chief Justice Dickson, their “sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.” I found this work to be very gratifying.

After a while, I wondered why we couldn’t focus on fixing employment relationships before they became problems. Which is why I “crossed the floor” and started representing employers exclusively. My goal was always to secure an employer’s commitment to treating their employees fairly because they understood that this was not only what was right for their employees, but what was best for their business Happy employees, after all, are the ones responsible for a business’ success. In this role, I worked with employers towards compliance – reviewing employment practices and policies from every angle to make sure they respect the law and, more importantly, respect employees’ “sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being” to ensure the best outcomes for my clients.

Eventually I came to realize that employment relationships rely on both employee and management-side lawyers in equal measure. As a representative of employees, I make sure that when an employer misses the mark on compliance, employees aren’t the ones left out in the cold. As a management lawyer, I make sure that my clients understand the importance of compliance with employment laws and how to avoid common pitfalls. I understand now that these are two sides of the same coin. Being exclusively on one side or the other is not where my best contributions will be.

After years of being on one side or the other of any issue, I am excited to bring both sides of my practice together in one place.

Adrian Ishak

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Adrian Ishak’s practice focuses on all aspects of employment law including employee relations, terminations, wrongful dismissals, employment contracts, and employment policies. He provides strategic counselling on a number of human resources, privacy and human rights issues. With a joint Ontario and Québec call and with experience in both jurisdictions, Adrian guides his clients through employment standards matters, pay and employment equity, and human rights obligations in Canadian common law and Québec’s civil law jurisdiction. Adrian represents clients in both English and French.