The courtroom was crowded: some 150 people watching with anticipation as three judges presided over the case. The young men representing each side stepped forward to make their cases. Two represented a union steward who had been fired after writing a blog that castigated a manager, while two others represented the company’s management, insisting that the termination was justified.
The judges had tough questions for both sides, but in the end, the judges made two separate decisions. One was that the union steward would be rehired but would be disciplined for his actions and not compensated for his time off work; it was the kind of compromise often seen in arbitrations. In a separate decision, the company representatives were deemed to have won the day because the judges felt they made the better presentation.
After the judgements, everyone ─ participants and audience ─ headed off to a reception to relax, enjoy food and drinks, and talk over the case.
An unusual ending for a court case, perhaps, but this was actually a mock arbitration case organized by Prof. Eveline Adomait for her economics class in industrial relations. She was assisted by members of the law firm Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti. And those judges? They were actually David Kilgour, general manager of the Guelph Mercury; Lillian Hamilton, human resources executive for Nutreco Canada Inc.; and Robert Bayne, a partner with Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti who advises employers on all aspects of labour and employment law.
“We’ve been doing this for four years now,” says Adomait. “This is the kind of thing that is usually done in graduate school or in law school; it’s unusual to have this kind of exercise in second year. But I think it’s a very valuable part of the course.”
Two weeks in advance, the students were given access to a website prepared by members of the law firm. The site included a detailed description of the situation leading to the arbitration as well as descriptions of other cases from the past that could be cited to bolster the students’ arguments. The students formed teams of two and prepared legal briefs for the law firm.
“The first 20 teams who submitted a case got to be in the competition,” explains Michael Ackland, who was on the winning team with Matthew Nieboer. “First, there were preliminary rounds where the teams got to present, two at a time. Then the top two teams ─ one team representing the union, and one team representing management ─ were chosen for the final round.” Ackland and Nieboer argued the management side in the final round.
The situation given to the students brought together a number of current issues that have featured in recent headlines. The fictional company ─ Moreau Solutions, Inc. ─ was engaged in embryonic stem cell research and had recently had its funding cut. In response, the owner hired his godson, Brian Ratchet, to help “streamline” the personnel in the lab. Ratchet was rude, treated employees badly, refused to allow the unionized employees to meet and harassed the women who worked there. The union steward, James Hanson, was treated especially badly. The management of the company then received a phone call about a blog Hanson created that posted photos of Ratchet and criticized his behaviours and treatment of others. Hanson was terminated, and the union filed a grievance.
Dylan Buller-Dempsey was part of the final team representing the union: “I was pretty nervous at first, and the questions they asked were tough to answer. We had 10 minutes per person to present our case in the preliminary round, and I thought that would be a really long time, but it flew by.”
Nieboer says he was surprised by how formal the event was. “The judging panel really interrogated us. They questioned every point we made, and the questions were hard. I think that made it a lot more realistic. And they gave us a lot of feedback, both negative and positive.”
His partner, Michael Ackland, feels that participating in this event gave him invaluable experience in public speaking. “It was a bit nerve-wracking, but I think it’s good to be in situations where you’re uncomfortable.” He, too, was surprised by the realism of the hearing: “They didn’t treat us like students. They really asked us tough questions and acted like it was a real case rather than just a learning exercise.”
Ackland believes that the preparation he and Nieboer did propelled them to the finals: “We knew we had to be able to predict what the other side would say so we could respond to it, and to do that we had to understand what unions do, what management does. You really gain a greater depth of understanding.”
Buller-Dempsey agrees: “In class, we learned what an arbitration hearing was, but you don’t really understand the process until you go through it. You get a much better understanding by actually analyzing a case, reviewing the case law and preparing the brief. You have to think much further into it.”