Interview with Brian Smeenk, Partner and Employment Lawyer in Toronto

    We had the distinct pleasure of discussing the legal profession with Brian Smeenk. At the time of this interview, Brian Smeenk was a partner in the law firm of Fasken Martineau DeMoulin. He is now principal of his own firm, Smeenk Dispute Resolution. Smeenk is a contributor to the HR Daily Advisor blog, Northern Exposure. Smeenk cites his varied employment background as a young person as a basis for his entry into employment law. Smeenk has practiced law for over 30 years and has mentored many up-and-coming attorneys, and shared his insight and step by step advice.

    brian-smeenkWhat event or series of events led you to pursue employment law as your specialty? Please elaborate.

    It was really my experience working in various places during the summers, in high school and during my undergraduate years, that triggered my interest in this field. Having worked in places as diverse as a coal mine, an automotive parts manufacturer, and a brewery, I became intrigued about how different the employee relations environments were at these places. In addition, it struck me that employment law is more about people than about the technicality of the law, and that made it attractive to me as well.

    Name 1 or 2 specific challenges you have faced in your law specialty and the steps you took to meet these challenges.

    Time management is the biggest challenge. As a lawyer, one is selling one’s services by the hour. If you’re good, clients want your advice, and (in the labor and employment field at least) they want it ASAP. And the better you are, the more demands there are on your time.
    I’m not sure that I have “met this challenge” to this day. A time management course helped me a lot. But more than anything, experience has helped me to determine what is really urgent and what is not. And it’s helped me learn how to delegate and share work. A good mentor would be really helpful in this regard too.

    How would you advise an individual entering the legal professions to proceed? What are the challenges, or obstacles that may be faced?

    I tell the young lawyers I’m mentoring to:

    1. Actively seek work from senior lawyers whom you respect.
    2. Be prepared to work extremely hard and long hours, especially early in your career.
    3. Always keep in mind what the client wants and needs; not what you would prefer to do.
    4. Deal “up front” with conflicting demands on your time. Tell the senior lawyer who is giving you an assignment, or the client, about the conflicting demand, and work out how to deal with it.
    5. Be sure to get sufficient R & R time.

    Can you give us an example of an interesting case or project that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

    One of my most interesting cases was a highly publicized case involving the termination of a long-term principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada. She had been dropped by the company in favor of newer dancers whose style and abilities the Artistic Director preferred. She claimed age discrimination, defamation, etc. I became involved after the National Ballet had lost a couple of rounds of the ensuing legal battle, and an arbitrator had ordered that the dancer be reinstated on an interim basis, while he determined the final result. That concept was abhorrent to the National Ballet, and was seen as an infringement of their artistic freedom in casting dancers. I was retained to avoid having to actually cast her in any role. I represented the National Ballet in further arbitration proceedings. We successfully argued that it was not feasible to have the dancer perform in the ensuing season; and then we convinced the responsible insurance company to pay a severance settlement that was agreed upon in mediation. Mission accomplished!

    What is the best career advice you have ever received?

    “Think like a lawyer.” Said to me by boss, now the Chief Justice of Ontario. What he meant was that, even as a young lawyer, one must think independently, strategically, and tactically. Think things through. And consider what your adversaries might do, before they do it. Thorough preparation is one of the most important keys to success.

    As an accomplished author of a blog related to employment law, what advice would you offer to the legal professional concerning the role of social media in their profession?

    Use social media! Your clients do. It’s a great, efficient way to communicate.

    This is the last question and time for the inner lawyer or legal author in you to break free. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise legal professionals to mine their own strengths to further their careers.

    A willingness to work very hard, and thus always be well prepared and thorough, has been the key to my success. Along with ensuring that clients know you always have their best interest at heart. There’s really no substitute for those attributes.

    We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Brian Smeenk. You can learn more about Brian on LinkedIn and read his analyses on the Northern Exposure blog.