An alternative to an ‘outdated legal market’

Stephen Dugandzic formed YYC Employment Law Group to contribute to his profession and the community in a more meaningful way

Stephen Dugandzic is owner and legal counsel for YYC Employment Law Group.

<strong>Stephen Dugandzic<strong>

What is YYC Employment Law Group and what does it do?

Dugandzic: YYC Employment Law Group is a modern, client-first, local and community-based law firm dedicated to serving Calgary and area employees in every workplace-related legal issue. I emphasize dedicated and employees because we’re passionate about protecting and strengthening employee rights in all that we do, and never represent management or practice outside the scope of employment law.

We’re subject-matter specialists and not generalists, which just means we really know what we’re doing. We assist employees in every workplace legal issue ranging from terminations, human rights, harassment and discrimination, to employment agreement drafting and review. If a legal issue involves an employee at work, we do it and do it well.

A first-of-its-kind in the Calgary employment law market, we are virtual and operate according to an easy-to-understand flat-fee structure. Essentially, this just means we don’t maintain a fixed business location and instead we travel throughout the city and surrounding area to meet with clients at locations most convenient for them – whether that’s their home, neighbourhood coffee shop or office; wherever they’re most comfortable and at any time that best works with their schedule. No traffic, parking or directions hassles to worry about.

To me, the traditional brick-and-mortar locations are a thing of the past – we’ve increasingly seen this in the retail sector and I believe it’s where the legal profession is going. It also gives us the ability to pass these savings in operating costs directly onto our clients. We work remotely from our homes and store all client files securely on the cloud, which gives our clients convenient 24/7 access to any document and work product on demand.

I created a model that generally freed us from the heavy burden of the dreaded billable hour. Let’s face it – clients hate being billed for 0.1 of an hour for a three-minute phone call, and so do I. I can’t tell you how many phone calls lawyers get from angry clients protesting charges like this, and rightly so. I wanted to create an employee-focused law practice that truly prioritized the well-being of the backbone of our local economy; the employees, the people of Calgary, especially as we very slowly climb out of the economic downturn. I was born and grew up in Calgary, so these things are really important to me on an intrinsic level.

Consistent with these values, our fees are reasonable and flat; meaning, I can quote a client upfront with a reasonable fixed fee and stick to it. I’ve been a client before, too – that peace of mind is invaluable. There’s really not a whole lot worse than being stuck with an invoice from your lawyer at the end of the month that far exceeds your reasonable cost expectations by the amount of your mortgage payment. We just won’t do that – period.

On top of all of this, I wanted to create a brand that emphasized excellence. Not just in terms of substantive legal competence, skill and knowledge (which is absolutely important), but on a personal level. To help accomplish this, all of our lawyers will be locally based and dedicated Calgarians committed to making our community a better place. We keep our earnings here and give back through various means, i.e. monthly giveaways to local causes (see our social media), academic scholarships, etc. Each of our lawyers is Canadian law school educated and possesses relevant experience from some of Canada’s best and top-ranked national law firms.

In my view, there’s really no better legal experience to bring into a boutique legal practice than that obtained from a top-tier national law firm or prominent corporation. Most importantly, our lawyers are approachable, down-to-earth, personable and kind. We really dislike bullies and have built a brand around the core values of kindness and compassion

Since we launched in August, our brand has been very well received by the market and client demand has surged to the point where we needed to bring in additional resources. I guess you could say that the market spoke, and we listened – we were welcomed with open arms by an employee-side segment of legal market that had been demanding change for quite a while. We were just the first to actively listen and incorporate the desired changes into our business model.

I’m not quite sure if the employer/management-side segment of the legal market is necessarily happy to see our successes, though. I’m just kidding.

How and why was it founded?

Dugandzic: Traditionally, the legal profession has been very slow to change and adapt to changing market conditions. Many people today see lawyers as dinosaurs; as being part of the “old boys’ club” and resistant to change. In part, we can blame Hollywood for this with the widespread popularity of shows such as Suits and the Good Wife, which only serve to perpetuate this way of thinking.

You know the stereotype – the arrogant and grouchy guy in his pinstriped suit charging $800 an hour for his opinion up in his ivory tower somewhere.

The reality is, though, this depiction isn’t always far off the mark.

The fact is, the legal services market is no longer what is was in the 1980s, ’90s or even early 2000s. In Calgary especially, people recognize the importance of more value and timely access to reasonable legal counsel. People not only want smart legal counsel, they increasingly demand responsive and client-focused lawyers who won’t break the bank.

Even the mere appearance of price gouging and the self-entitled lawyer or law firm is enough to turn many clients away today; it’s really a disservice to everybody. This is particularly so on the individual side of the market when we’re dealing with actual people and not large corporate entities. Although even there, corporations, especially public corporations accountable to shareholders, are becoming more and more focused on the provision of value-added legal services.

You’re probably asking yourself what this actually means in practical terms. Quite simply, it all comes down to what I call the Big Six attributes of: transparency, fairness, responsiveness, competence, approachability and cost. Having been around Calgary’s legal world for a while now (just long enough to recognize the general resistance to change here without suffering from groupthink), I became frustrated with the overall lack of these attributes in our legal community.

Time and time again, I’d have to turn away clients because they couldn’t pay a firm-imposed retainer fee; precisely what the other side was hoping for. Other times, it was responsiveness to client needs that was compromised because of the firm-imposed billable hour targets or general obsession with revenue generation that mandated attention being given to other files as a matter of priority.

In my view, it presented an access to justice issue and I went to law school to facilitate and increase access to justice, not limit it.

I launched YYC Employment Law Group as an alternative to what is, in my view, a largely broken and outdated legal market. Our firm’s structure is based on the Big Six attributes that I referred to. Basically, this means I prioritize honesty and integrity over profit margins, my clients’ interests over my ego, and humility, kindness and compassion over superiority and prestige. I guess you could say I’m an old-fashioned Calgarian and my mom and dad raised me well.

I don’t mean to imply that the whole legal market is in any way representative of this – there are certainly many ethical, socially-conscious and principled lawyers here – but there is definitely a lot of room for improvement. I left a well-paying employment associate position to form YYC Employment Law Group because I felt I could contribute to the legal profession, and to our community broadly, in a more meaningful way; leading and managing my own employee-focused law practice gives me the ability to do just that. I really couldn’t be more excited.

How are you different from competitors in the market?

Dugandzic: Our competitors haven’t necessarily adapted to the ever-changing market conditions in the way our brand has. First, aside from us, Calgary-based employment law firms uniformly use the billable hour or hefty contingency fees in the range of 20 to 33 per cent of enhanced severance amounts. What this means in practical terms is that clients are typically paying for every second of their lawyers’ time spent on tasks related to their file, no matter how trivial or mundane – phone calls, emails, inserting documents into an envelope, waiting around at the printer, you name it.

Believe me, this can add up very quickly and this just isn’t fair or equitable. Nor is it fair for an employee-side lawyer to impose a fee of 20 to 33 per cent for any increase in severance negotiated. On a $50,000 increase in severance, which isn’t uncommon, that’s a minimum of $10,000 payable to that employee’s lawyer – money that employee will surely need as a financial cushion until new employment is secured.

These sorts of fee arrangements also incentivize an early, and often reduced, settlement agreement just to get the lawyer paid, all of which serves to distinguish these lawyers from what we offer at our practice – reasonable, client-focused flat fees.

Another key point of differentiation from our competitors involves consultation fees. Some employment lawyers charge $800 for a one-hour consultation, others are $350 to $500. To me, that’s just far too much and represents a disservice to the client. Our consultation fee for a detailed and thorough one-hour consultation is $200. This enables us to review all relevant materials beforehand and provide a definitive legal opinion, without gouging our clients.

I’m committed to providing high-quality legal services to employees at a reasonable and affordable price point. Even further, others purport to offer “free 30 minute consultations” but like anything in life, nothing is really free so my advice to clients is to beware of these practices. Additionally, it’s very difficult to provide a thorough legal opinion in 30 minutes or less. Just saying.

Beyond cost, we’re a people-first legal practice. We’re all about connecting with our clients in their language (no legalese unless requested) and we’re readily accessible by way of a wide range of means – we actively embrace social media as a communication tool to enhance our connectedness and clients often communicate with us via these apps on their smartphones. To my knowledge, this isn’t something even remotely embraced by our competitors – we are always only one click of a button on your smartphone away. And, no, not our assistants, I mean “we,” the legal counsel. I think this is the way the market is going and we’ll be introducing a market-first proprietary app in the near future to enhance this connectivity with our clients from smartphone to smartphone.

Truthfully, I think many other lawyers are just out of touch with the present-day realities. People generally don’t communicate by phone call anymore – or at least it’s not preferred. Of course we accommodate this method, too, but we offer much more by way of connectivity and responsiveness than what the pack made up largely of baby boomers currently offers. I’m not hating on baby boomers at all – I’m just saying, let’s get with the times, people. I’m a millennial, though, so I guess I’m biased.

Basically, I wanted to do something fresh and different and more consistent with what clients want in 2018 and beyond. We are forward-thinking and represent the new school in Calgary employment law – we’re employment law redefined and evolved.

What are some of the most prominent issues you deal with concerning clients?

Dugandzic: As employee-side employment lawyers, we deal with a ton of different legal issues inherent within the workplace every single day.

Because of Calgary’s subsisting soft economy with an unemployment rate higher than the national average, wrongful dismissal claims continue to be the primary driver of our practice – by a large degree. Each day, I hear of new layoffs and terminations occurring. I mean, layoffs and terminations occur even during the best of times economically, but in times like these we see significantly more wrongful dismissals.

Essentially, and unless there is contractual language to the contrary, an employer commits a wrongful dismissal anytime an employee is terminated without having been given what’s called common law reasonable notice. The common law requires employers to provide reasonable advance notice of an impending termination to the employee, which is intended to give the employee an opportunity to seek out and secure reasonable alternative employment (sometimes called “working notice”).

Most employers prefer not to do this and simply terminate an employee immediately with pay in lieu of notice. That’s fine and they’re generally entitled to do so. But the issue then becomes well, what is Joe in Accounting entitled to by way of damages/severance for this wrongful dismissal? This is where we come in because this isn’t a simple ‘one month per year of service exercise,’ contrary to popular belief.

For obvious reasons, in economic times like these, employers are looking to reduce costs and generally like to do so by way of reduced severance offers. Some simply provide and pay out the statutory minimum prescribed by the Employment Standards Code (Alberta), which is usually far less than what the same employee is otherwise entitled to at common law. This is because some employers are just unaware of the common law entirely and think compliance with the statutory minimums is sufficient, or because they’re aware but are attempting to shift the onus to the employee to do something about it – like engaging in a staring contest.

By do something about it, I mean retain legal counsel, pay a retainer fee and attempt to negotiate out-of-court and/or commence legal action. It’s a common pressure tactic used by employers to exploit the financial vulnerability of the employee – it takes out-of-pocket money for an employee to do this and employers and their legal counsel know that.

The practical reality is, many employees opt not to do anything once the statutory minimum termination pay is provided or an unreasonable severance offer is made in excess of the statutory minimum in a “take it or leave it” scenario. So they accept it because they lack the financial resources to do otherwise, or at least they think so.

What’s even worse, some employers will falsely allege, intentionally or negligently, that just cause existed for the employee’s termination, leaving the employee with nothing unless and until it retains legal counsel. This pressure tactic really offends me because it often succeeds, to the significant detriment of the employee and their family unit.

I’m all for promoting healthy business, but the statutory minimums are really low. For an employee of 20 to 30 years, we’re talking about eight weeks pay in lieu. I’d like to see the provincial government increase these, at least a little bit. I have clients who have to pick between feeding their family or suing their employer for wrongful dismissal. That’s just not right.

How has the recent recession and the current struggling economy impacted your business?

Dugandzic: The economic recession and subsequent very slow recovery has impacted our business in a very large way – it’s countercyclical in a certain respect. It’s caused us to become busy beyond capacity at times, which has necessitated our having to bring in other high-quality lawyers to join the YYC Employment Law Group team.

Irrespective of economic conditions, in our business we always see people being terminated and laid off. But these things have increased markedly over the past short while and we anticipate that this will likely continue indefinitely as the city’s employment market slowly ascends out of the abyss.

Severance offers aren’t what they once were among Calgary employers and I think this is our new reality that employees need to be prepared for.

I’ve had clients who are professional engineers and geologists who’ve had to take up work as couriers, ride-sharing drivers, and tour bus operators to help ease the financial burden post-termination because they couldn’t secure relevant re-employment, which really emphasizes the need for people to have proper severance reviews conducted by a competent employment lawyer before they sign.

But that’s why we’re here and we highly recommend that any employee (from executive to entry-level) subject to a termination or layoff contact us for a severance review before signing anything.

Our business is and always will be protecting the interests of employees, especially so during these bleak economic times in Calgary. We’re standing by and ready to assist the people of Calgary – we’re different.

– Mario Toneguzzi

employment law legal

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


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