“Just what does it take to get disbarred?” That’s been one of the conversations ongoing this week with law students at Legal Help Centre.
At Legal Help Centre, we provide experiential learning for law students and articles for law graduates. Much of the clinic work is training for law practice. This includes training in substantive law, court procedures, client relations, document management, and of course, ethics and professional responsibility. We work hard to ensure the students that come through our programs learn about competent lawyering with an emphasis on client service and professional integrity.
It was in this context that discussions arose about a concerning disconnect between what our Code of Conduct sets out as the expectations of lawyers (what we say) and what some lawyers actually do. The most recent conversations were spurred on by a story reported by CBC last week about the suspension of Winnipeg lawyer David Bradley.
The Law Society of Manitoba suspended Bradley for one year effective March 1. Little information is available on the Law Society website as to the circumstances, but the CBC report contained numerous quotes from the decision of the Discipline Panel that paint a picture of a spiralling series of fabrications, misleading the client and opposing counsel as to the status of the client’s claim. The Law Society panel concluded, according to the CBC report that his behaviour was:
“…entirely unacceptable and is deserving of a significant penalty which, in the panel’s view, is one step short of disbarment.”
Hence, the students are questioning, what do you have to do to be disbarred? Why is repetitively misleading your clients and colleagues over a period of time not sufficient to disentitle you to practice law? This is indeed challenging to understand and even more, to explain, whether to law students or the public at large.
When the rubber hits the road and theory becomes reality, ethics matter. Our duties to our clients, our colleagues and the court are not only aspirational; these are responsibilities we are obliged to carry out even when it is hard to do so.
Integrity is a core value of the legal profession. We need to always ensure that we act individually and as a profession, in a way that reflects the centrality of this value. When we fail to do so we put at risk both our self-governing status and the position of trust we hold in relation to our clients.
I don’t know enough about the circumstances of this case to form an opinion as to whether or not the panel made the “right” decision. I’ve no doubt they did their job as best they were able given the evidence before them and submissions made. What bothers me is the embedded message about how much you can get away with and still be allowed to practice law, albeit after a period of suspension.
Absent more information, one is easily left with a negative impression about the integrity of the legal profession. And perhaps it is nothing more than additional information that is needed to clarify and expand upon the facts as reported by the media.
Sadly, as noted above, there’s nothing more than a suspension notice on the Law Society website, not nearly enough to counter the concerns raised on reading the media accounts. That’s a missed opportunity, in my view. An explanatory news release could have provided useful context, explained the reasoning of the panel and reinforced the commitment of the Law Society to protecting the public interest, upholding the values of the legal profession and supporting lawyers in meeting their professional responsibilities. It’s not so difficult to do; other law societies already do so (for example, the Law Society of British Columbia’s February 27, 2015 notice of a suspension).
Why not in Manitoba?