What do you call a litigator who knows when a case must go to court and when it can be settled? A litigator who knows how to reach a fair and reasonable settlement. Melissa Rico’s practice of employment law is centered in that knowledge.
“Carbert Waite is a boutique litigation firm and we only go to court when it is necessary,” Melissa says. “Most of the time we can settle long before our files reach the courts due to the fact that we are able to negotiate successfully. While there is a time and place to be aggressive, there is often no reason to do so.”
As a litigator, Melissa represents both employers and employees on cases concerned with wrongful termination of employment, violation of employment contracts, human rights violations, privacy violations and disability issues.
“We have a unique advantage at our firm in that we represent both employers and employees. As a result of that, I have a really good sense of what drives each side and what the issues are,” Melissa says. “It brings a unique perspective and allows us to understand what motivates each person and how we can bring each side around to a resolution.”
The mix of experience is sought after. Each year Melissa speaks at conferences concerning employment law for human resources professionals as well as other lawyers.
Litigators are a separate category of lawyers who have special training and aptitude that enables them to file lawsuits, prepare for trial and argue in front of Courts. In most employment law cases, even if they will be settled, the review of documents, the assessment of the laws to be considered and applied, and the preparation of files are conducted as if the lawsuit will be brought to trial.
Melissa’s preparation for a career as a litigator was surprising. She has a musical background, having been trained as a classical pianist since she was just three years old. She then went on to earn two undergraduate degrees in music and zoology at the same time.
“I saw university as a way to train my brain without having a specific career in mind. And then, I just fell in love with the LSAT,” Melissa says. “I love puzzles and I love logic, reading and literacy. I never envisioned myself as a litigator, but since I love reading and writing, paying attention to details and working with people, I found the perfect career fit.”
The path to a fair and reasonable settlement, however, begins long before documents are reviewed and the applicable laws are assessed by a litigator.
“You have to listen to your client’s story. You have to pay attention to where they want to go. Ultimately, it is all about what a client needs to move forward,” Melissa explains. “Being a good is paramount. It’s the only way to ensure that the client and I can articulate the end-goal and work together to achieve it.”
Melissa has seen trends emerging in employment and dismissal issues being raised by clients in her office. “When most companies terminate employees, it is not out of maliciousness,” Melissa explains. “It is because of the downturn, but also because of the downturn, they have less money for severance packages. So we are seeing more ‘termination with cause’ cases. In those cases, if there is reason to push back then I advise clients they should definitely push back.”
Those are the cases in which Melissa listens even more carefully to her clients. It enables her to tell their story and communicate their perspective to the other parties at the negotiation table.
“Cause terminations, if the employee feels especially wronged, can become emotionally charged very quickly,” Melissa says. “We need to be calm and we need to analyze the situation to figure out how to best deal with the specific issues it raises. From there we need to act quickly and discuss what this employee is entitled to now that they have been severed.”
Economic downturns also create new situations for employers. Company re-organization after a senior management change, as well as changes in ownership, can lead to profound cultural shifts in how companies operate. It also changes how they appreciate, or approach, the roles or work styles of individual employees.
“We have seen people who are success stories within their former organizations being let go,” Melissa says. “I had a client who started out in an entry level position in his mid-teens and eventually became the general manager of a division at a big box retailer. Suddenly, after a higher-level management change, he was being micro managed to the point he was forced to go on short term disability due to work stress before he was fired.”
“That’s the kind of ‘bully the employee until they go away’ techniques we are seeing,” Melissa explains. “Higher level managers and general managers are expected to meet very stringent targets on everything from safety, to customer support, to employee training and benefits. These may be targets that are impossible to meet. The employees are then subjected to progressive discipline or let go.”
As a result of these trends, lawyers like Melissa who focus on employment law are seeing more stress-related cases on the disability side of their practices.
“Telling their story to a third party seems to help alleviate stress for most people,” Melissa says. “At least you get the satisfaction of pushing back and knowing you tried to right a wrong. At the same time, the pressure of litigation itself can be stressful and it is important to keep the focus on the end goal .”
Melissa works to ensure her clients never feel they are being left out of the loop. As a matter of practice management, she tries to respond to client emails and voicemails within half a business day.
While it is taking longer for employers to respond with a settlement offer than it did in the past, Melissa says that issues of employment law are generally over faster than many other kinds of legal issues. She has personally turned around hundreds of cases over the 12 years she has been with the firm.
“Without cause termination issues are not as slow or as onerous as other legal issues, Melissa says. “While negotiating a severance package or a settlement proposal might feel like it takes forever, long protracted litigation is typically unusual in our field. As long as everyone is reasonable and does not prolong the situation, then these can be settled fairly quickly so long as everyone is willing to compromise.
Satisfied clients, whether they are employees or employers, is what gives Melissa Rico the satisfaction of a job well done.
Kate Baggott's technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review at MIT, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun, and on the Business to Business News Network Kate is the author of two short story collections.
CARBERT WAITE LLP
2300 Encor Place, 645 - 7 Ave SW
Calgary, AB T2P 4G8T:
MELISSA A. RICO Partner