As part of our ongoing Spot Light series, uLaw recently sat down with Tina Lee, an employment lawyer and business litigator based in Toronto.
For about 15 years Lee has been helping clients, most often businesses, find cost-effective solutions to complicated commercial legal matters.
Lee says she first got heavily involved with law when she took an intensive year-long legal clinic program, where she found herself practicing law, litigating and managing a huge workload on her own. Fast forward 15 years and she is now the owner of Lee Workplace Law.
Q: At what point in time in your life did you decide to pursue the field of law? Why did you make such a decision?
A: For as long as I can remember my goal was to be a lawyer, because I come from a family of lawyers and a judge in Taiwan.
Q: What were your reasons for becoming the lawyer that you are today? Which areas of the law do you focus on, and explain your reasoning.
A: I practice primarily employment law, which covers almost all legal issues arising at the workplace. This includes workplace harassment complaints, human rights issues, non-compete and non-solicitation disputes, fiduciary duty and director liability, employment agreements and policies, executive compensation, dismissals and severals litigation.
I represent both employers and employees, and I attend at all levels of court in Ontario in representing my clients. Employment law is a very fluid area of law, where there are new updates and new evolutions each year, which keep the practice of law very interesting.
In addition, the human aspect of employment relationships is fascinating, and that is one of the aspects I enjoy the most. The other aspect that gets me excited is client advisory work that comes down to simply identifying problems at the workplace, and finding practical solutions to solve them.
I also deal with commercial and shareholder disputes to the extent I am servicing my employer clients. I learn a lot about each of my clients as I help them with these different areas, which I really enjoy doing.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced through your career--where it was extremely difficult and perhaps daunting?
A: The biggest challenge was opening my own law firm in July 2017.
I was a trained lawyer, and have become reasonably good at practicing law, but I had zero experience in being a business owner. The hardest part of it was adjusting my mindset from being a passive employee to accepting that I could also run a business.
Once I made that switch in mindset, everything else became a lot clearer. Looking back, running my own business has made me a better lawyer.
Solutions and strategies that are effective for legal issues in fact largely consist of a business element. The law is the law, and often, it is idealistic, academic, or overly technical. What most clients need is not just the law; rather, is business sense and practical solution. That’s where my own entrepreneurial experience adds value.
Q: Can you remark on any particular court cases and jurisprudential shifts which you've encountered and had to work around while being a lawyer?
A: There have been many in employment law. One example is on the issue of termination provisions in employment agreements. This remains one of the most controversial issues in my area of practice. No matter how much time is spent studying court decisions on this issue or drafting a termination provision, it would be difficult for any lawyer to claim that their termination provision is “air-tight” or “future-proof”.
Another example is employment standards in Ontario. We saw probably the most dramatic of legislative swings in modern employment law history in 2018 and 2019. Bill 148 came out and took effect on January 1, 2018, and made sweeping changes to minimum employment standards. When we finally got accustomed to some of the changes, within months, the new government came up with Bill 47, and made further sweeping changes, which came into effect on January 1, 2019.
These kinds of uncertainties mean that as a practicing lawyer in this area, I have to learn to practice and give legal advice a certain way to protect both my clients and my practice.
Q: Can you highlight some of the most satisfying moments in your time as a lawyer? Without being too specific (attorney-client confidentiality, etc) can you give some examples or momentous occasions in your career and describe their significance?
A: As a barrister, the most satisfying moment is always getting that court order or judgment that makes sense. Litigation matters are by their very nature intense, and often the preparatory work that goes into hearings and trials is intense.
Having the court make a ruling that supports the hard work my client and I have put in is gratifying.
As a solicitor, the most satisfying moment is engaging in productive discussions with my client to learn about their needs and operations, and coming up solutions that make them say, “this makes sense, it saves me a lot of trouble, thank you.”
And generally as an employment lawyer, the most satisfying moment is getting a “win” of a settlement for my client.
Q: How has the practice of law shifted or changed over the time you’ve been a lawyer? Where do you see this direction going in the future?
A: Traditionally law firms have a lot of power over clients and employees. I have seen across the board significant changes to firm structure, fees charged to clients, and employee compensation structure. Now clients have more power, and employees have more say. I don’t see that trend reversing itself.
The adaptation of technology into the practice of law is another recent decade trend, which hopefully will continue. Courts for example are accepting filings being done online. It is still limited, but I see that expanding in scope down the road.
Q: How do you think the legal profession will change in the next 10 years?
A: In Ontario I see there being even more varieties in firm set up, billing structures, and employee compensation. I see there being more effective use of technology in litigation. What I really would like to see is there being real opportunities in the legal profession to allow for part-time practice. Currently, the only way to practice part-time is if the lawyer opens their own practice or contracts work.
That is because the billable target is still the number one factor in determining an associate’s productivity, and hence, “worth”. I hope to see that change such that “part-time lawyering” can genuinely be achieved in traditional employment relationships.
Q: Anything else unique about yourself that you feel you should add for this article? Please send it along.
A: When I first started articling, my principle said to me that I face nearly insurmountable challenges compared to my peers. Those challenges were that I am female, I was young and had no grey hair, I was petite and had no imposing stature, I am of visible minority background, and, I smiled too much. His comments were that I would have a hard time distinguishing myself and survive in this tough profession.
Looking back, I believe a lot of what makes the practice of law challenging is completely unrelated to those things. All practicing lawyers face some challenges, and some of those challenges are universal to all practicing lawyers.
I take pride at having persevered despite those words. Instead, I found solid footing at leading law firms and large full-servicing law firms alongside excellent legal minds, and ultimately opening my own firm where I boast of providing a high standard of legal service to prestigious clients.
If you want to contact Tina Lee, please visit her company page, Lee Workplace Law