Isabelle Roy prides herself on being a chameleon, and it’s a good thing she does. As general counsel at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), leading a five-person legal team, Roy has to fight for its more than 55,000 members—most of whom are professionals working for the Canadian government—by finding solutions within an employer that not only enforces the rules but creates them. The law is fluid, but so is Roy, who has worked throughout the legal field both in big firms in Toronto and small practices in Ottawa.
Founded in 1920 to protect the interests of professional public employees, PIPSC is the largest union representing government workers in Canada. Roy started with the organization 10 years ago as an employment-relations officer and had to work her way up to the general counsel position, and she now leads a legal team tasked with everything from assisting the board of directors in amending its bylaws to guiding employment-relations officers on complex representation issues.
DOs & DON’Ts
Public-Sector Legal Work
Get to know the ins and outs of the organization and its operations, and develop an understanding of what people do daily across the organization.
Look for opportunities
in even the most challenging scenarios, and think of them as potential doors to a different solution.
Keep thinking outside the box. On the one hand, you really have to know what the organization does, but don’t be held back by the way you’ve always done things.
Consider the broader mission of your organization. Don’t get bogged down by a straight legal opinion that doesn’t take into account how business gets done.
Lose sight of the broader objectives.
Be afraid to be innovative.
Try to do it all in-house. Sometimes you need someone with a particular expertise.
Work in a silo. It’s really important to keep interacting with colleagues in other departments.
Set goals so broad that you’ll never achieve them. Instead, break things down into achievable pieces and create steps.
Recently, Roy has been dealing with issues related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal public sector—a major portion of PIPSC’s membership. Roy and her team are giving voices to these professionals, who feel unable to give their opinion without fear of retribution. The key challenge when representing clients working for public entities, Roy says, is that “you’re faced with an employer who, if it doesn’t want to bargain at the table, can pass legislation on a dime to oppose [your proposals and actions].” If an employer doesn’t like the way essential-services agreements are negotiated, for example, it can legislate for a new process. Or if employees are on strike, the government can legislate them back to work.
“Governments change,” Roy says, “so you constantly have to adapt as a trade union and look at how you can impact public opinion and ultimately government policy.” Looking ahead, Roy and her team are working to develop better social media practices so that they can engage in knowledge-driven advocacy and foster a better relationship with the public in order to force the government’s hand indirectly.
Obviously, Roy sometimes has to challenge the government through action in the courts, but over the years, she has learned that that process is not only lengthy but costly, so she continues to look for other solutions. “As a union, solidarity is key,” Roy says.
With the government coming down increasingly hard on federal public-sector unions, they decided to band together to have a stronger voice. Last year, though, the government unilaterally revamped the collective bargaining regime, requiring the development of new guidelines, and in 2008, it introduced the Expenditure Restraint Act, which capped the increase in wages for federal public servants and reversed collective agreements that had already been agreed upon. PIPSC’s challenge of that act is still ongoing and will have huge implications for the law’s future.
“The real challenge is to understand the operations and be able to take what you know about the law and use it in new ways to help the organization adapt to the backdrop of the day,” Roy says. Ultimately, by making sure its members are heard, PIPSC aims to contribute to the greater good and transform increased awareness into a stronger, united voice that doesn’t oppose the government but works in concert with it.
Roy has striven for and achieved similar unity in her legal department. “Six years ago, I had one goal: to make the office of the general counsel into one that permeates operations,” she says. Today, thanks in part to her efforts, PIPSC is stronger, better, more efficient, and compliant, and it’s getting closer to finding a resolute voice that’s in harmony with Canadian citizens and the government alike.