“I got scammed by a lawyer, and the law society told me he was fine. That’s what really hurts a lot,” said Vancouver resident Angelika Opic.
She hired Toronto lawyer Michael Munro after being led to believe he had a clean record by the regulator.
Winnipeg resident Carrie Forsythe hired lawyer Barry Gorlick after he was recommended to her by another lawyer who knew Gorlick’s discipline record but didn’t tell her.
“I was told there was nobody who could look after me better. That’s a quote,” she said.
Both Munro and Gorlick have since been suspended over unrelated cases.
“I just thought he was laughing at me. I just thought I’d been made a fool of,” said Opic, who lost $25,000 after hiring Munro in December to contest her mother’s will.
She said she was heartbroken — then shocked — when her mother died and left the family home to her brother in Ontario.
Opic said her mother had dementia, and her signature on her last will and testament is very shaky. The will left Opic $60,000, far less than the value of the home. She is adamant her mother would not have done that if she had been of sound mind.
“She really wasn’t herself the last five years,” said Opic.
Before hiring Munro to contest the will, she contacted the Law Society of Upper Canada, asking about his record. She was told he was in good standing.
“I thought I had done my due diligence,” Opic said.
She wasn’t told Munro had been under heavy scrutiny since 2012, because of eight serious complaints against him.
When Opic hired him, he had already been warned by the law society he was facing suspension for failing to co-operate with investigators.
Even so, he took almost half the money her mother left her as a retainer. He originally asked for her entire inheritance.
“With respect to financial matters, I will require a retainer in the amount of $60,000. You should deposit the retainer into my trust account,” Munro said in a Dec. 8 email, a month before his suspension.
When Opic told him she couldn’t stomach sending that much, he settled for $25,000.
“That’s more money than I made last year. I think I made $18,000 last year. Because I was still looking for work,” said Opic. “I am a medical secretary. I wish I would have gone into law.”
Munro even pretended he was still working, after being suspended in mid-January.
“I will be in touch in the course of the next two or three weeks,” Munro wrote to Opic on Feb. 11. The email was signed “Michael Munro, Lawyer.”
'Hire another lawyer'
Opic said he did no work on her case. She found out about his suspension in April, when his phone was disconnected. She called the law society next.
“I started crying, and I said what about my money, what about my case?” said Opic. “[She was told] I am sorry, we can’t help you here. You will have to hire another lawyer.”
Regulators don't proactively inform clients directly, even after lawyers are suspended, beyond the original complainants. Instead, that information is posted on law society websites.
The law society makes no apologies for not warning Opic about the imminent suspension when she called in December. It told Go Public its investigations have to reach a “critical point” of evidence-gathering first.
“Until then, public disclosure of the investigation is not in keeping with common law principles that mere allegations are not sufficient to conclude there is guilt,” said a statement from the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Munro stands accused of failing to work on cases, lying to one client and failing to account for $37,000 of that client’s fees. He didn’t show up for recent law society proceedings on his case.
Law society knew plenty
Other former clients told Go Public Munro simply disappeared. Brent Jesperson paid him $60,000 in 2010 to handle a suit against a doctor.
“Michael stopped all communication suddenly [in September 2013]. I called the law society about my concerns,” said Jesperson, who lost touch with Munro for good in December.
“No mechanism seems to exist to warn prospective clients that complaints or concerns are before the law society. New potential clients could not know their retainers were at risk.”
Gilbert Roy paid Munro $4,000 last year to file a suit against the same doctor.
“I was waiting for him to file the statement of claim. He never did,” said Roy.
“I trusted two people and I got screwed twice. I trusted the doctor and then I trusted him. But it seems like nobody cares.”
Several clients, including Opic, have applied to the law society’s compensation fund. It won’t say how much — if anything — they could get back.
“We cannot speculate on the likelihood or amount of compensation to claimants,” said the law society statement.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, Forsythe said she feels as if the legal community conspired against her.
The lawyer Gorlick was recommended to her in 2012 by former law society bencher Jon van der Krabben.
“I thought he had my back. I thought he was protecting me and I asked for his advice,” said Forsythe.
Van der Krabben failed to tell her he chaired a hearing the year before, where Gorlick pleaded guilty to professional misconduct, for failing to work and communicate on a client’s case over several years.
“This really added insult to injury in my situation,” said Forsythe.
She gave Gorlick’s firm, Monk Goodwin, $5,000 to file a lawsuit over a mouse infestation in a house she bought. Gorlick never did file her claim. Emails show he made several excuses.
During that time, he was again under investigation, for failing to communicate with another client, as well as a serious charge of misappropriating a client’s fees.
'He made a mistake'
Van der Krabben told Go Public that when he recommended Gorlick he didn’t think his previous misconduct was of “significant concern.”
“He made a mistake and paid for it. To follow your logic, it would be imprudent to enter into a motor vehicle if someone who had previously been convicted of speeding was the driver,” van der Krabben said.
Forsythe said Gorlick’s firm also didn’t tell her anything was amiss, until he was suspended this year.
“Not one of them — not the law firm, not the law partners — ever recommended that I look somewhere else or that this guy may not even be able to finish,” said Forsythe.
She has hired another lawyer to restart her case, which she said was hurt by the delay. She had to push Gorlick’s firm for months to get a $3,000 refund.
Gorlick refused to talk about any of this, citing client confidentiality. He faces a hearing on the charges against him in November. His former firm told Go Public the “matter is closed.”
More transparency promised
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is promising easier access to lawyer discipline records when reforms are brought in next year.
“We have developed a strong commitment across the country to make our discipline processes much more public, open and clear in terms of what we are doing,” said Darrel Pink, a Nova Scotia lawyer on the national discipline standards committee.
However, serious complaints and investigations will still be kept under wraps until a lawyer is charged or suspended pending charges.
“We will not publish information about complaints that are not prosecuted,” said Pink. “None of us, I don’t think anybody, would want to hold someone accountable for something that was ultimately dismissed.”
Federation statistics show there were more than 10,000 complaints filed against Canadian lawyers in 2012. That same year, 60 were suspended and 42 disbarred.
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