Scam/Spam Legal Awards: Lawyers and Clients Be Aware

BarristerThis post is directed to both lawyers and clients who wonder whether the “Awards” boasted by their favourite law firm or lawyer are legitimate or whether they are “scam”, ego, or pay-to-play awards.

One good example is found in the email I received today:

“FINANCE MONTHLY is pleased to inform you that you have made the shortlist for the 2018 Law Awards.
You have been shortlisted in the category of:

Family Lawyer of the Year
Canada

Winners will be notified the week commencing 8th January 2018′

Last week I was told that “CorporateLiveWire” was considering me for a leading arbitrator award in Canada….yeah, right!

My first reaction was that these were not legitimate lawyer ranking services and a quick online search confirmed I was correct. But how is a client to know whether the awards touted by lawyers are fake or real. Often a look at the criteria for selection tells a lot. For example, the “Top Choice” awards require:

“Each Nominee must be in business for a minimum of 2 years

Each Nominee must conduct fair business practices

Each Nominee should have an acceptable clean and neat exterior and interior image location – what a business portrays to their “walk in” customers is fairly important.

Each Nominee is in need of an acceptable online image – websites should be easy to understand and navigate while still maintaining a pleasant image.

Each Nominee must have online reviews, with a minimum of 75% positive online business reviews and a maximum of 25% negative online business reviews.

Each Nominee must have one or more acceptable social media outlet presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn)

Each nominee must have a minimum of 25 nominations”

The Top Choice website entices consumers with the following:

“Entering its 11th year, the Top Choice Awards Gala is a premiere event, often referred to by guests as the “Oscars” for business.”

In June 2016 the Better Business Bureau warned:

“Better Business Bureau Warns Groups Not to Fall for Vanity Scam

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest has received numerous reports of an email scam targeting small businesses across the country. In the past 24 days BBB Scam Tracker has received 23 reports from potential victims in the Northwest region. This ploy is known as the vanity award scheme —one we’ve reported on in the past.

The email informs small businesses and nonprofits they are a recipient of a “Best of (insert city name) Award.” But in order to claim their trophy, they have to pay up. Business owners report being asked to pay anywhere from $149 to $229 to claim the honor and receive a personalized plaque.”

Yes, there are some valid lawyer ranking services including “Best Lawyers”, “Lexpert”, “Superlawyers” (US only) “Benchmark Litigation”, “Chambers”, “Leading Lawyers”, and “Martindale Hubbell”, however, many of the other companies exist simply to sell advertising in magazines or plaques touting the “winner’s” name. Other’s will publish your legal articles, if you pay them to do that. Not unlike lawyers who do radio or television shows but have to pay to appear. That’s right, they don’t get paid, they pay the producer of the show to appear on the show.

I remember being asked to appear on Judge Harvey Brownstone’s Canadian television show, an offer I declined once I learned they wanted me to pay him to appear.

For those interested, a good site to check out is “Who Hates Spammy Lawyer Awards?”, the brainchild of law firm website designer, Igor Ilyinsky who ranks lawyers’ awards as “Reputable, Not Reputable, Pure Spam”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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Courtrooms Flooded with Litigants With No Lawyers

GEO CASUALIt’s not getting any easier to be a judge these days, as self-represented litigants continue to overwhelm Canadian courts in increasing numbers.

With the abolition of Legal Aid and a middle-class that can’t afford to hire lawyers, the situation has become dire.

University of Windsor law professor Julie MacFarlane’s research indicates that up to 80% of court users in family law go into court without a lawyer.

The popular cliché that people who represent themselves in court have fools for clients has never been more true, and despite the increasing availability of pro bono legal services, rarely does free legal advice mean that a lawyer will show up in court.

While it is lawyers that have the reputation for talking too much and wasting court time, the truth is that court cases with lay litigants take up many more court hours because rules of evidence and procedure, while somewhat relaxed for in-person litigants, must still be maintained to ensure due process and the integrity of our justice system.

In a recent court case, with no counsel, where the issue was whether a Pakistani divorce was authentic and legitimate, one judge said:

“I record that I began this case at 10.30 a.m. this morning and I am now concluding it around 3.30 p.m. It has, accordingly, effectively occupied the whole of the court day. By sheer good fortune, the other case which had been listed for hearing by me today was vacated [postponed] yesterday for reasons connected with its readiness. If that case had not been vacated, I, and the litigants in that case, would have been faced with very considerable difficulties and a severe shortage of court time, and probably also additional expenditure to the parties in that case who, as likely as not, would have to have returned on another day.”

The judge found that the divorce was valid, but was justice really served when he noted that he did not have any basic materials, no orderly bundle of relevant documents, no chronology, no case summaries, and no real argument.

Professor MacFarlane’s observation that “it’s the inmates who are running the asylum” is sadly apropos.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Toronto Lawyer’s $2 Million Dollar Fraud Conviction Upheld

GEO#1Yesterday the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed Toronto corporate lawyer, Remy Boghossian’s appeal from his 2015 conviction for an almost $2 million dollar fraud on the Royal Bank of Canada. (R. v. Boghossian, 2017 ONCA 870 CanLII)

The scam involved Mr. Boghossian and two co-accused acquiring a forged TD Canada Trust bank draft for $1,895,751 in February 2011 from an unidentified bank insider at the Mississauga branch of the TD bank. The funds were then deposited into Mr. Boghossian’s trust account, whereafter he purchased, in two separate transactions, Australian-minted gold bullion from a company in Montreal.

Mr. Boghossian’s lawyer argued that his client purchased the gold on behalf of a client, Omar Ali, who was a real estate developer going through a divorce who wanted to hide the money from his wife. He asserted that his client was a victim of the scam and had been duped into participating. The trial judge found that Mr. Ali did not exist and was created to advance the fraud. He held that a strong circumstantial case had been established and that the three accused acted together to knowingly defraud the Royal Bank by presenting a forged TD bank draft.

The court heard that Boghossian’s two accomplices tried to sell some of the gold bars, but a wary gold dealer recognized the “kangaroo” logo on the bars and contacted the police.

What remains a mystery is who the insider at the TD Bank is and where the gold bars are now. Media reports indicate that the police have discontinued their investigation of these two matters.

Mr. Boghossian also appealed his 3 1/2 year sentence, arguing that as his co-accused only received 3 years each, his sentence should be reduced to three years. The Court of Appeal dismissed the sentence appeal saying:

“In our view, the extra six months awarded the appellant does not raise parity concerns. The appellant was a lawyer. His status as a lawyer and the role his status as a lawyer played in the commission of the offence justified treating this as an aggravating factor, warranting a somewhat higher sentence for the appellant. We see no error in the sentence imposed.”

It is expected that the Law Society of Ontario will disbar Mr. Boghossian.

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How “Uncivil” Can a Lawyer be in Court? The Groia Case

GEO_edited-1If you are a litigator in Canada you should know the name “Joe Groia”. He is a masterful legal advocate from Ontario who specializes in securities law. His prominence in the legal profession was capped this week when Groia v. The Law Society of Upper Canada (now the Law Society of Ontario) was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada. (Law Society of Upper Canada v. Joseph Peter Paul Groia, 2012 ONLSHP 94)

Why is Mr. Groia suing Ontario’s Law Society and why would the Supreme Court of Canada agree to hear his case? In June 2012 the Law Society held that Mr. Groia had professionally misconducted himself while defending his client John Felderhof in an action taken against him by the Ontario Securities Commission. You may recall that Mr. Felderhof was second in command at Bre-X Minerals Ltd, the Canadian-owned gold mine in Borneo that turned out to be a fraud, leaving thousands of investors with losses of hundreds of millions of dollars after investing in the bogus company.

Groia’s representation of Mr. Felderhof was second-to-none, as Mr. Felderhof, after 160 days of trial, was acquitted of all charges. However, the Law Society took it upon themselves to call Mr. Groia to account for his allegedly “uncivil” behaviour during the proceedings, conduct so egregious that during the trial, lawyers for the Ontario Securities Commission asked the judge to stop the trial arguing that he had lost jurisdiction by failing to rein in Mr. Groia’s outrageously rude behaviour in the courtroom. That application failed and the trial continued.

Two Ontario courts reviewed and upheld the Law Society’s ruling against Mr. Groia, describing his trial conduct as “unrestrained invective”, excessive rhetoric”, “theatrically excessive”, “sarcastic and petulant”, “more guerrilla theatre than advocacy in court”, and “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity”.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy and significant to Mr. Groia’s defence that the trial judge did not hold him in contempt, neither did he report Mr. Groia’s trial behaviour to the Law Society.

Groia, in rebuttal offered the following arguments:

1. He cast no personal aspersions against opposing counsel, but only targeted the Securities Commission and the prosecution;

2. His basis for alleging prosecutorial misconduct was based on his reasonably held views;

3. His language was mischaracterized by the Law Society and the courts;

4. The tone of the trial was an important factor in assessing his conduct, particularly in light of the prosecutor’s behaviour;

5. The Law Society retroactively applied standards of the “civility movement” to his conduct; and

6. His obligation as an effective advocate outstripped any absence of civility.

Without reading the whole of the transcripts of the trial, it is difficult to assess whether Mr. Groia’s behaviour fell so far below the standard of professionalism of a barrister that he ought to have been sanctioned by the Law Society. His original punishment was a two-month suspension of his license to practice law and an order that he pay costs of $250,000. This penalty was later reduced by the courts to a one-month suspension and $200,000 in costs.

Mr. Groia would, of course, argue that even reading the transcripts one would not be in a position to assess the conduct and roles of each of the counsel and judge at the trial and that may very well be true. It’s the old story that “you had to be there” to understand the dynamics.

Media reports from the hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada this week, appear to underscore the high court’s focus on the absence of disapproval from the trial judge, who was best placed to determine whether Mr. Groia’s conduct sunk to a level where he deserved to be chastised or disciplined.

As a trial lawyer in hard-fought cases, I tend to agree that it is not the Law Society’s place to interfere as a back-seat referee in a hotly contested proceeding where an unsuccessful defence will lead to dire consequences for the accused.

The Supreme Court of Canada clearly wants to provide guidance to litigators. We must now wait to see what the Supremes think…

Not Ready for Trial? Ontario Court Says Too Bad….

GeorgiaLeeLang057An Ontario judge has spoken out clearly about counsel who book trials and then abandon them on short notice to the courts. In Armstrong v. Armstrong, 2017 ONSC 6568, Mr. Justice Pazaratz called the case, involving a reduction or termination of spousal support, only to learn that the litigants in the case were not available, and an adjournment was sought by both counsel.

Counsel had earlier agreed and the court permitted them to adjourn the trial, then set for August 2017. At that hearing, counsel had agreed the trial would proceed in October 2017 for three days.

Counsel advised the court that an error had occurred and their clients incorrectly believed the rescheduled trial would take place in January 2018. Counsel also stated that a settlement conference had not been booked which might assist the parties to settle. As well, one of the lawyers indicated he had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon. Judge Pazaratz queried counsel as to why a trial was booked if settlement had not yet been explored, and also opined that the court would and could work around counsel’s medical appointment, but that did not justify an adjournment of the trial. He also said:

“The implications of attending court on day one of a three day trial and requesting an adjournment go far beyond merely wasting one day of court time. Judges and trials are scheduled based on a balancing of multiple scheduling considerations. If this three day time slot becomes wasted, there may be far-reaching consequences (for example another three day trial could have been called, but if I am only available for two more days this week, it means I don’t have enough time to deal with that other matter).”

Judge Pazaratz advised counsel to get their clients to court immediately so the matter could proceed unless a settlement was reached, and warned them that if the matter was not settled and the trial did not go ahead, he would dismiss their case.

Counsel returned with a consent order in which each party withdrew their claims on a without prejudice basis, however, the Court was not impressed with counsels’ tactics saying:

“The problem, of course, is that if people can simply withdraw claims when they aren’t ready for trial, there’s nothing to stop them from re-commencing those claims in short order, and creating even further stress and expense for the system. We have an obligation to ensure that judicial resources are appropriately utilized and not misused. I am not prepared to allow the parties to simply withdraw their claims on a without prejudice basis.”

Judge Pazaratz then dismissed the claims, but not on the merits, saying that if either party wished to return to court to deal with any of the claims, they would require permission from the Court to proceed, and that in the event that occurred, he would be the judge dealing with the matter.

Where courts are being criticized for a lack of judicial time and unreasonable delays in meting out justice, Judge Pazaratz’s ruling is a welcome response to counsel who abuse the system. While “courthouse steps” settlements are to be encouraged, in this case it was apparent from counsels’ remarks that settlement had not yet been broached; that no trial preparation had been undertaken; and that counsel were content to show up, without their clients, expecting a favourable or neutral response to their self-imposed dilemma.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Looking for a Lawyer? Buyer Beware

GeorgiaLeeLang057The practice of law is both a profession and a business. Many lawyers can rely on their winning track record and high ethics to gain a reputation that engenders word-of mouth referrals.

Other lawyers buttress their status in the profession with advertising. Gone are the days, however, of yellow pages ads.

Today’s lawyers utilize television, radio, and the internet to entice potential clients. Many of these ads fall into the “conservative, balding lawyer standing in front of a bookcase” category. While others are innovative, even racy! Case in point:

An all-women law firm in Chicago created a billboard ad that read “Life’s Short. Get a Divorce.” The ad featured a photo of an attractive woman in her lingerie beside a handsome man with a six-pack. It turned out that the woman who posed for the ad was the lead attorney at the firm and the dude with her was her personal trainer. She reported that the firm was inundated with phone calls. Unfortunately, the billboard was removed seven days after it went up for an alleged by-law infringement.

Other forays into to the world of marketing are less provocative but no less effective. One family law firm, again an all-women firm, launched their print marketing with the headline “Ever Argue With A Woman?” I think they made their point very clear!

Lubbock Texas is the home of a personal injury lawyer whose billboard screams, “Injured? Get the Gorilla!” and yes, a huge gorilla dominates the advertisement.

Other law firms have raised the hackles of their governing bodies with their ads.

In Nevada a lawyer bills himself as “The Heavy Hitter” in his rambunctious television spots and a Polish speaking lawyer ran an ad on a Polish-language radio station referring to himself as “The Lion of the Court”. The trouble was that he had never tried a case in court!

Family Law Lawyers Must Resist Temptation to Take on Their Client’s Cause as Their Own

GeorgiaLeeLang016In a recent discipline decision from Ontario the presiding adjudicator, David Wright, spoke a sensible caution to family law lawyers whose passion for their clients’ causes can obscure their professional objectivity. He also referenced the problem faced by some counsel who in their minds blend opposing counsel with their clients, castigating them as the “enemy”.

Other comments included the following

“Family law involves personal and intimate matters and the most vulnerable members of our society – children. The issues can lead clients and lawyers to feel passionately, particularly when we have our own histories.

However, clients will not be well served if lawyers cannot work together on effective and proportionate dispute resolution and solutions to the issues. We must separate clients’ views from those of lawyers and recognize that, as lawyers, we only fully have one side of the story.

What is more, clients will not be well served by personal incivility in contentious matters. After all, if lawyers are not civil to each other on a personal level, how can we expect spouses involved in a family breakup, the most stressful time of their lives, to do so? What are we modelling? The legal profession will fall in the public eye if lawyers act in an unprofessional and uncivil manner.”

In the case before Mr. Wright, a senior family law lawyer in a contentious divorce proceeding sent 14 pieces of correspondence over a two year period to opposing counsel. The letters contained threatening, inappropriate and unprofessional language. In a second incident the Lawyer became upset during a court hallway discussion with opposing counsel and raised his voice beyond a level that was professional or acceptable.

The third allegation involved the Lawyer’s courtroom submissions where opposing counsel referred to the Lawyer’s argument as “disingenuous”. The judge later directed the lawyers to work together on a worksheet regarding the trial, but the Lawyer refused to participate until opposing counsel apologized for calling his argument “disingenuous” and made a threat to opposing counsel. The adjudicator found that the Lawyer’s behaviour lacked civility.

Adjudicator Wright noted that family law lawyers work together on different cases and often have multiple files with each other during their professional careers. While this can help promote collegiality, counsel must be able to put aside past perceived wrongs or disputes and start fresh with each new file.

My experience in the B.C. family law bar is that opposing counsel are courteous and civil, however, as a junior lawyer, now many years ago, one senior counsel took advantage of my inexperience with unexpected rudeness and aggression. I later learned she was one of those lawyers who other counsel avoided where possible. I later turned down cases where this lawyer was opposing counsel in order to avoid her nastiness. Lawyers who cultivate this style of practice are only to be pitied, as they must be terribly unhappy with their lives. That’s my two cents!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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