Windsor lawyer Peter Hrastovec says he was taken off guard when Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Derry Millar called him with the news that he would receive the Law Society Medal.
“I’m usually not really speechless and I was stunned. I had absolutely no idea,” says Hrastovec.
“I don’t feel I deserve this because there are so many more people who I think are more deserving.
But I certainly will accept the award in the spirit in which it’s given, with the notion that it is a tremendous honour, because it is a privilege to practise law.”
While Hrastovec may not feel deserving of the honour, his extensive community-service work and successful legal practice suggest otherwise.
Few lawyers can handle the balancing act he has - working as the managing partner of a law firm while serving on numerous boards of directors within their community, all while raising a family.
Hrastovec’s parents, dad Stjepan and mother Antica, immigrated to Canada from Croatia in the 1950s. Stjepan, who was a journalist, fled the country in the midst of the political upheaval at that time.
The family, including Hrastovec’s older sister, re-established itself in Canada, with Stjepan forced to take on janitorial work, later becoming the head of housekeeping at a Windsor hospital where Antica worked as a clerk.
“We lived very modestly, but notwithstanding that, I felt like I was the richest guy in town just because of my parents’ love of the arts and literature and things like that,” he says. “There was always something exciting going on at home.”
His father’s passion for journalism helped push Hrastovec in that direction, and he planned to become a reporter. But he veered off that course after watching the evening news one night.
“I twigged to the fact that there were 15 news stories, 11 of which dealt with the law,” he says. “I thought law has a very far-ranging and far-reaching application in our lives as a society, so this would be a good thing to have an expertise in.”
After graduating from the University of Windsor’s law school in 1982, Hrastovec articled with McTague Clark, now McTague Law Firm LLP, under renowned commercial law practitioner Charles Clark. He says Clark pressed the importance of helping the community.
“He used to say, ‘Don’t worry about your law practice; your law practice will take care of itself. Worry about your community,’” says Hrastovec. “That was his mantra, so it kind of rubbed off on many of us - it certainly did on me in terms of what I felt my obligations were to my community.”
He was called to the bar in 1984, a time when sky-high interest rates caused economic despair in Windsor. He was unable to establish a practice until senior Windsor lawyer Bill Cowan - whose daughter Sheila is married to former prime minister Paul Martin - offered him some office space to start out on his own.
After two years working solo, Hrastovec moved on to practise with the firm Willson Barat Farlam, where he strengthened his litigation skills. After two years at that firm, he was invited by Leon Paroian to join Paroian Raphael Courey Cohen & Houston, which later became Raphael Partners LLP.
Hrastovec became a partner at the firm, which this year began the process of dissolution due to problems with succession planning.
“I’m back to my roots because I’m a sole practitioner again but working in association with a lot of my former partners, who are still good friends and good colleagues,” he says.
Hrastovec, who is 52 years old, has developed a vibrant practice that focuses mainly on labour and employment law, with some commercial litigation and administrative law work as well.
“I found a real knack and a desire to help both employers and employees [with] resolving their differences . . . . I like to devote myself to workplace solutions,” he says.
“I think it’s so important that employees and employers spend their time functioning in the economic sense of providing service and employer providing employment so that we build a strong economy. There’s really no place for us to be spending all of our time in courtrooms and in boardrooms negotiating, so I’m very resolution oriented.”
Hrastovec has also kept Clark’s advice on putting community first close to his heart. He has balanced his practice with a steady stream of volunteer work, generously taking on key leadership roles with the Windsor
Symphony Society, the Rotary Club of Windsor, the United Way, and the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t watch much TV,” says Hrastovec. He says his community work began when he got involved with the University of Windsor Faculty of Law’s alumni association, on the urging of his mentor John Whiteside, a professor emeritus at the law school.
“It led, of course, to other appointments and other boards that people asked you get involved with, and in the early days I had trouble saying, ‘No,’” he says.
“But I learned how to balance ‘No’ with effectively doing the right job, because if you can’t do the job well, you may as well not be involved. If you’re too busy as a volunteer, and you spread yourself too thin, then you’re going to do some harm and disservice to the organization.”
Hrastovec says his community work has opened up some business opportunities but asserts he has simply aimed to help others.
“I’d be far poorer for not having been involved . . . . What it has done is enrich my life and livelihood by just the contacts that I’ve made and the excitement and seeing projects completed,” he says. “The work comes from other sources.”
What’s made it easier for Hrastovec to devote so much of his free time to his community is his love for the city of Windsor. He appreciates that the city offers a quick commute - he’s door to door within nine minutes - which gives him more time to be there for his wife and kids.
It’s also a tight-knit community, he says, and some of his law associates live within blocks of his home. “You get to know the local bar very, very well,” he says.
“You get to know and respect each other as professionals.”
Despite the importance Hrastovec places on his legal practice and community services, he says the best part of his life is his family.
His wife of 29 years, Denise May Hrastovec, is a chartered accountant; his daughter Andrea is a teacher near Toronto; son Stephen is a student at the University of Waterloo; and his youngest son, 12-year-old Aaron, is in elementary school.
One of Hrastovec’s most prized accomplishments, he says, is the family’s efforts to eat dinner together at least four times a week without having the conversation ever turn to business. “I always put family first,” he says.
Please click here to view the video highlights of Law Times' interview with Peter Hrastovec.
This is the final installment of our Law Society Honours series, profiling recipients of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s annual awards. Law Foundation of Ontario CEO Elizabeth Goldberg, who also will receive the Law Society Medal this year, declined to be interviewed for the series.