We sat down with workplace lawyer Jessica Fairbairn to learn more about her career, her clients, and what she’s learned from the COVID pandemic.
It’s been four years since you joined Harris as an Associate, and now you’re a partner. Congratulations! So what was it about Harris that made you want to continue your career here?
I first learned about Harris while I was working in San Francisco; it was the Canadian workplace law firm our US-based clients used. Upon moving to Vancouver six years ago and beginning my job search, it quickly became clear that Harris was the place to practice labour and employment law in British Columbia. Harris’ lawyers reflected an incredible depth of experience, their client base spanned diverse sectors and industries, and the firm culture offered genuine opportunities for mentorship and knowledge sharing. It is exciting to practice law in a truly collaborative and supportive team environment with other lawyers working at the top of their game.
Tell us a bit about your practice—what is the best part of your day?
I most look forward to the parts of my day when I get to connect and interact with other people—providing advice to clients, interviewing witnesses, developing legal strategy with colleagues. I chose labour and employment law precisely because of the unique human relationship element it offers, and that continues to be a primary contributor to the enjoyment of my legal practice.
What are the questions you are fielding from clients right now? Are there any particular themes or issues coming up?
Without a doubt, I am fielding a lot of questions on the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the workplace. Some of these are very specific to this particular point in time—COVID-19-specific benefits, public health orders, safety plans and the like. But others overlay issues employers have always been facing, in particular the intersection with the duty to accommodate. For these types of issues, I find it is helpful to slow down and remember the first principles underlying these obligations. COVID-19 has undoubtedly thrown all of us for loop (to put it mildly), but for the most part the basic principles about an employer’s ability to manage the workplace continues to apply.
It must be an interesting time to be a workplace lawyer…
It’s definitely been interesting! COVID-19 has driven home for me just how important human connection is in our personal and work lives. This pandemic has taken mass-scale work-from-home out of the realm of conjecture, and revealed many unexpected benefits and downsides, particularly with respect to mental health, productivity, boundaries, security, and privacy. Employers have the power to make a real impact on the quality of their employees’ lives as they decide whether and how to enable work arrangements.
Personally, as an American with family and friends scattered across the United States, the border between our two countries never felt to be much of a barrier to keeping connected with the ones I love. Certainly, COVID has proven that is not the case, and despite all technological advances there is no substitute for being together in one place. I empathize deeply with those who have been unable to connect with family and friends abroad.
It has also been a challenging year for many of our clients. What are your hopes for them in 2021? Do you have any advice looking at the year ahead?
Certainly, I am hoping for a return to normalcy, and an ability for employers to plan for the future. But I also hope 2021 provides an opportunity to incorporate learnings from this year into workplace practices moving forward. I also predict that as the vaccine has mass distribution, the dust begins to settle on the pandemic, and the labour market stabilizes, many employees will be looking to make a change. Employers should be putting their minds to employee retention – and employee recruitment – efforts now.
In addition to a busy legal practice, I know you are active in your extracurriculars as well. Tell us about that.
For the past three years, I have been on the board of Reel to Real: A Celebration of Moving Images for Youth Society, an organization that represents a unique intersection of two sectors I practice heavily in: the film and television sector, and the K-12 education sector. Reel to Real is a long-standing non-profit organization dedicated to showing culturally diverse, authentic media programming for youth. Through its annual film festival, public screenings, hands-on workshops, interactive panel discussions and public forums, the organization seeks to expose youth to new ideas and cultural perspectives, explore issues that are important to youth, and to increase understanding of the art of filmmaking. Particularly in this cultural moment of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and related societal movements, I am very proud to work with an organization that spotlights and amplifies minority and diverse viewpoints, and engrains the importance of these voices for our youth.
Awesome! And what about your “off” time? Where can we find you on a weekend?
Rain or shine, you will find me in the woods with my two young kids, husband, and dog—hiking, biking, camping. I feel so lucky to live in British Columbia with easy access to nature—a mere 30 minute drive can take you away from city life entirely. And just as quickly, I can be back in town grabbing a coffee and a tasty treat from any number of Vancouver’s premier bakeries. Trees, carbs, and caffeine, with my family, that’s my happy place.