Solicitors slinking away from City of Winnipeg

More than half the City of Winnipeg's lawyers have left their jobs over the past four years, but a senior official says the exodus is no cause for concern.

High turnover in legal services is no cause for alarm, senior city official says

Chief corporate services officer Michael Jack says there are all sorts of reasons lawyers leave the City of Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

More than half the City of Winnipeg's lawyers have left their jobs over the past four years, but a senior official says the exodus is no cause for concern.

Since 2014, no fewer than nine lawyers have departed Winnipeg's legal services department, according to a comparison of city compensation-disclosure documents from previous years with current Law Society of Manitoba employment records.

The department employed as few as 14 lawyers and as many as 18 in any given year since 2014, according to compensation disclosures. That works out to a staff turnover rate in excess of 50 per cent, based on no fewer than nine departures.

You can't tell me this is a normal rate of departure from a legal department. Clearly, there are issues here.- Coun. Janice Lukes

While the City of Winnipeg is not disputing it has trouble retaining lawyers, chief corporate services officer Michael Jack says there is no single reason solicitors are slinking away.

"Each individual case, there would have been individual reasons for that departure," Jack said in a telephone interview, stating a mix of resignations, retirements and dismissals are to blame for the high turnover within legal services.

Retirements are nothing out of the ordinary, Jack said. Dismissals, meanwhile, are warranted when lawyers fail to perform well in their jobs, he added.​

Resignations, however, made up the largest category of departures. Former city lawyers have taken jobs with private law firms, the provincial government or corporations such as Great-West Life.

Jack said the city has trouble competing with other employers.

"We're constantly dealing with competitive pressure from others — similar departments at other levels of government, Crowns and large corporations that have their own in-house departments." Jack said.

"Pay is always an issue. Salary is always an issue for many areas of public service."

In 2016, City of Winnipeg solicitors received between $72,000 and $125,000 in compensation, according to the city's disclosure.
Coun. Janice Lukes says she doesn't believe Jack. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Coun. Janice Lukes, who has been an outspoken critic of city human-resources practices, said she does not buy Jack's business-as-usual explanation for the high turnover among city lawyers.

"You can't tell me this is a normal rate of departure from a legal department. Clearly, there are issues here," Lukes said in an interview.

"That's a big exodus, in my opinion."

Lukes said the high turnover is costing the city money to train new employees. She also said the loss of institutional knowledge may be affecting the city's ability to obtain favourable legal outcomes.

"If I was in charge of the legal department, I think there would be more costs involved in continually hiring and retraining and that would outweigh the cost of getting lawyers that would stay," she said.

Jack said there is no evidence high turnover in legal services is costing taxpayers money and dismissed any concerns about the management of that department, which he used to lead.

"I think we have a remarkable level of talent, all things considered," he said, adding taxpayers can't expect the city to prevail in every legal dispute.

"We can't win them all. That's just the nature of the business."

None of the former city lawyers, contacted by CBC News, chose to comment on this story. 

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.