Straight shooter Lawyer Matt Napier has built perhaps the largest personal injury practice in the province.
By MARK BOLTON

A BIG CORNER OFFICE overlooking the harbour, a large bare wooden desk, framed legal documents on the side wall: The first impression of Matt Napier’s office is that of a typical hotshot lawyer’s.

But if you look a little closer there are differences. Instead of abstract art on the back wall, there are pleasant oil paintings of the Halifax Harbour. Instead of rows of leather-bound statutes gathering dust, there are neatly stacked books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Old Bailey and its Trials. And if you look closer you will notice something rarely seen in a lawyer’s office — a framed thank-you card.

He is a tough interview. He is so passionate about his chosen field and his team that it’s difficult to find out anything about him personally. But slowly he opens up.

The tale of how Mr. Napier became a lawyer is straight out of the movies. Having just finished an undergraduate degree at Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie universities, he set out across the world unsure of his next move. His travels led him to London where he popped into the court to have a look. There amid all the pomp and regalia, Mr. Napier realized his calling.

“I was sitting in Old Bailey in England watching a criminal trial, and at that moment I decided I was going to get on the plane and come back to Canada and go to law school,” Mr. Napier recalled.

He came back to his home town of Halifax to do a law degree at Dal. Upon graduating in 1982 he began his articling at Dalhousie Legal Aid. Before finishing the year he was lured away by a group of “young, aggressive and innovative lawyers” at Boyne Clarke in Dartmouth, the firm at which he is now a partner.

“My office was in the basement of the Maranova Hotel and as I walked up to the door for the first day of work, there was a funeral parlour on the left and the door to the office on the right and as I entered the door I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’ve death and payment of taxes all covered off.’ “

Twenty-five years on, Mr. Napier heads up a team at the firm dealing exclusively with personal injury cases. Shortly after joining the firm, one of the senior lawyers had a half-dozen personal injury files he wanted to get rid of and passed them on to Mr. Napier. He hasn’t looked back.

One of the consistent themes in Mr. Napier’s life is his belief in the Maritime approach to business, both in developing his practice and handling legal matters. It’s a straightforward, no-frills way of operating. Most of the firm’s advertising is through word of mouth and his team, now 14 strong, has grown along with the practice.

“I’ve just tried to employ the best people in the province on one team to process personal injury cases,” he said. “I think we do the largest volume of these cases in the province.”

The growth of the practice has tested both his legal and business skills.

In building a team as large and strong as we have, you realize that you’re running not only a practice, but also a business. That’s been a challenge.”

Running a business is not the only challenge Mr. Napier has faced.

The relatively recent changes to the Insurance Act in Nova Scotia have affected all local personal injury lawyers.

In November 2003 the government changed the Insurance Act to shift the burden of proof and impose a minimum cap on non-minor personal injury claims (above $2,500).

“What it meant was that personal injury clients have to prove their case, other than minor, to exceed a cap of $2,500,” Mr. Napier said. “Even if you are in a coma, if you come out of the coma in a relatively short period of time it may be suggested to be only minor.”

Nearly four years later, the effects of the changes are only just starting to filter through the community. People are only noticing now “that the premiums are going up a little bit and people in the province are having a tougher time advancing their claims.”

The changes have decreased the number of claims being brought and consequently decreased the number of lawyers handling personal injury cases in Nova Scotia.

When the Insurance Act changes were introduced, while other firms took on less personal injury work Boyne Clarke was hiring people. The strategy to build a large specialist personal-injury team to handle the bigger claims paid off.

“We’re carrying a caseload bigger than ever,” Mr. Napier said.

One of those employed during the upheaval was Peter Flett, now the litigation analyst on Mr. Napier’s team. Mr. Flett has a background in the insurance industry and has known Mr. Napier since 1989 from working on the other side of cases. He has high praise for Napier.

“(He’s) the hardest-working man in town,” Mr. Flett said. “In first, out last. . . . A lot of labour goes into the mental heavy lifting on each file, yet Matt’s able to keep all that straight over a vast number of files.”

Listening to Mr. Napier talk about the legislative changes and the impact they are having on the community, it is clear he has an enormous amount of passion for what he does. “What appealed to me was representing the little guy against the insurance company,” he said.

The framed thank-you card on his wall is an example of providing such a service. It’s from the family of a brain-injury survivor of a head-on car collision.

“The upshot of the case was that every cent of insurance coverage that could have been afforded to them was recovered. At the end of the day, as much quality of life was afforded to that lady as possible.” Mr. Napier is still in touch with that family.

The appreciation he has received over the years doesn’t stop at the card on the wall. With a cheeky smile he opened the draw of his side drawer to reveal a two-foot-wide bundle of thank-you cards. He said they were literally hundreds of cards he has received over the 25 years he’s been practising.

And while the firm grows and Mr. Napier’s practice evolves, he makes sure he keeps a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by his desk as a constant reminder of why he entered law in the first place.

 

Mark Bolton is a freelance writer from Australia testing the employment waters in Halifax.