Most people may agree that the law, or dramatizations of it, make for great TV. Although law students develop an awareness of how law makes the world work, many lawyers do not experience law from various perspectives to get a fuller picture of how our legal system underpins just about everything in our society. Najeeb Hassan took a circuitous route before landing in his current dual role of Vice-Chair and Registrar with the BC Labour Relations Board. He started out in private practice, and gained valuable experience in law-adjacent roles in labour relations, before returning to private practice. Though appearing unconnected, the changes that Najeeb made were concentric circles, connected by the law and legal process at the centre. In growing his expertise in administrative law, particularly labour, employment law and human rights law, Najeeb made an effort to ensure the labour relations system functions well and is viewed with a high degree of integrity by the public and those who engage with it. Throughout his career, Najeeb recognized opportunities for personal and professional growth that others may have perceived as risks, or setbacks.
Completing an undergrad in political science when the Canadian Constitution was being repatriated drew Najeeb to pursue a legal education. He recognized that the law is intimately related to the establishment and maintenance of a functioning society. Najeeb was also influenced by his uncle, who at the time was one of only a few lawyers of Arab or Muslim heritage in Canada.
Representation matters and to Najeeb, having his uncle as a role model allowed him to to see himself as a future member of the Bar.
Through Najeeb’s time articling at a large Bay Street law firm and gaining his first job as a lawyer at a medium sized firm in his hometown of London, Ontario, he developed an interest in administrative law. Early in his career, after a senior partner in his firm resigned under challenging circumstances, leaving behind a thriving administrative law practice, Najeeb was thrust into the breach to support the firm’s clients. Although the firm experienced serious challenges at the time, the situation offered Najeeb an opportunity to gain valuable hearing experiences that would never have been available to him at such an early juncture of his career. After deciding to focus on labour law, Najeeb took what some may see as a back-stepping detour when he moved to BC. His first job in the Province was as a Labour Relations Consultant with the Health Employers of BC. A law degree was not a job requirement, but it helped.
Najeeb recognized the value in this experience, even if it meant leaving the “lawyer” title behind.
He got to learn more about labour relations than most lawyers newly specializing in the area would have had exposure to. He also ran hearings before almost every arbitrator in the Province, actively participated at province-wide bargaining tables, and built important relationships with trade unionists and their counsel.
Najeeb left the Health Employers of BC with incredible exposure to the labour community and a profile in it that helped him to land an appointment as a Vice-Chair at the BC Labour Relations Board (BCLRB) in 2003. This was a dream opportunity for Najeeb, but like most good things, it came to an end when his term ended in 2006, but not before Najeeb gained valuable adjudication and mediation skills and further developed his reputation as a fair, but firm expert in the field of labour law. On reflection, his first term as a Vice-Chair with the BCLRB made him a better lawyer, as viewing cases from the middle, he learned from the good, the bad and the ugly strategies and techniques of counsel.
Given his experience, after his term ended at the BCLRB, Najeeb had a variety of options for the next step in his career journey, but decided to return to private practice. He joined Heenan Blaikie, a large national law firm, where he spent 8 years as a partner before the firm dissolved, seemingly in a flash. With the dissolution of Heenan Blaikie, Najeeb took his experience and reputation to Roper Greyell, one of the most respected labour and employment boutiques in Western Canada, where he was a partner and, for a time, a member of its Management Committee.
Najeeb looks at every challenge in his career as neither good nor bad. Rather, when each of the three career altering circumstances mentioned above occurred, Najeeb understood them to be a new door opening to something fresh and exciting. With this frame of mind, he was able to appreciate what he had learned from his time and experience and was able to value it as something that made him a better lawyer, adjudicator and person..
Najeeb feels fortunate to have that outlook, and also fortunate to have had so much opportunity for growth that allows him to do different things.
Despite having established a very successful career as counsel, when an opportunity to return to the BCLRB arose in 2019, Najeeb decided to return to the world of adjudication and mediation, where he took on his current dual role as Vice-Chair and Registrar. In simple terms, as one of several Vice-Chairs at the Board, he hears cases under the Labour Relations Code, at first instance. In addition, as a member of the BCLRB’s Executive (along with the Chair and Associate Chair), Najeeb often sits as a member of Reconsideration Panels reviewing original decisions of his colleagues. These cases often influence the development of the Province’s labour law and policy. As Registrar, Najeeb also vets most applications that come to the BCLRB to ensure compliance with the BCLRB’s Rules and Practices and Procedures. He is responsible for a large and dedicated staff who process the applications.
Najeeb’s job as Vice-Chair is to conduct a fair hearing, to make sure that the parties are heard, and to prepare timely and accessible decisions. When the lawyers appearing before him finish their arguments, they put away their documents and authorities and relax knowing their case has been put in and there is nothing more they can do but wait for a decision to be issued. For Najeeb, one of the most intellectually challenging parts of his job is just beginning, as he turns to assessment of the evidence and arguments in rendering his decision.
In private practice, Najeeb’s workload was often dictated by client demands. At the BCLRB, workload is driven by the extent to which files require immediate attention, i.e. those which fall on an expedited track. He sometimes works outside of typical business hours, but overall he has more control of his schedule now. Having said that, the intellectual demands of his role are no less than what he experienced in private practice. The pressures and demands to complete the hearing process and to issue decisions, however, are more internally driven than externally.
No one goes from being a law firm partner to working in the public sector expecting a raise. But, money was not why Najeeb wanted to do the work that he is now doing at the BCLRB. His values and purpose lie in serving the public and ensuring that the system he has worked in most of his professional life functions with integrity. For Najeeb, being part of, and maintaining the integrity of, public institutions is of critical importance; he has witnessed the adverse impact on societies due to high-profile, often public, attacks on important public institutions. Moreover, Najeeb recognizes that having a legal education and a career in the law puts one in a privileged position economically and socially.
Being aware of the kind of work that you enjoy and being thoughtful about how you gain experience and from whom you learn is valuable for anyone seeking a fulfilling career.
As Najeeb points out, this is particularly important for those looking for work at a tribunal. It is critical to gain experience and knowledge in the area of expertise in which the particular tribunal of interest operates, before applying for appointment. This comes with time naturally, but subject matter expertise in a specific area is something lawyers often must intentionally seek out to obtain it. Sometimes doing so means a side-ways move and reframing your definition of career advancement. If you are interested in working in administrative tribunals in British Columbia, Najeeb recommends taking and teaching CPD courses, pursuing career opportunities at various entry points in the sector you are interested in and checking out resources that the BC Council of Administrative Tribunals provides, as well as the Crown Agency Board Resources Office’s website.
The most essential resource of all, regardless of your career goal, are the people with whom you choose to work.
Najeeb considers himself very fortunate to have worked with and learned from generous, thoughtful and supportive people and he values these relationships highly. His take-away advice is to spend the time considering your work relationships and evaluate what you are learning from them and your work in general, not only professionally but also in terms of your personal growth. If something is missing, think outside the box for ways to find it. If you are confident about the kind of work you want to do, don’t be afraid to circle around your goal for as long as you need to gain expertise before trying to land on it.