Lawyer Debt
June 15, 2015 12:44 PM   Subscribe

My retired parents have been taken for a ride by a lawyer. Do they have any recourse? (Location: Ontario, Canada)

My elderly father was wrongfully terminated from his last job. My parents weren't particularly interested in doing anything about it, but a lawyer friend-of-a-friend talked them into it being an obvious, open and shut case, and referred them to an extremely reputable, big-time colleague who handles this kind of thing. They're a smaller client than this colleague lawyer usually deals with, but he seemed extremely enthusiastic about what a slam dunk this was and hard-sold them into filing the lawsuit, specifically insisting that paying him on contingency would be crazy and it would be much cheaper to pay for his time as they go.

As soon as it became clear that my father's old employers were fine with dragging this out long-term, the lawyer's interest in the case disappeared, even as the expenses began snowballing. Emails and phone calls are never, ever responded to, deadlines are seemingly missed. Years have now passed with no progress, and their rare contact with him is consistently, weirdly rude and insulting, with odd remarks about how the case might be going better if they were paying him more. They now owe this lawyer about as much as they could hope to get from a victory, with no end to the case in sight and a victory seeming increasingly unlikely, judging by his palpable disinterest in the case. They're now having to decide whether to take out a loan to pay for the case to continue to the next step (a non-binding mediation, they think? But the lawyer won't respond to their messages to explain what exactly this new expense is, just that they need to pay it?) or call it a sunk cost and walk away, knowing that they'll be paying off their debt to him for much of the rest of their lives.

It doesn't seem like there's a lot they can do - they signed a contract, took a gamble, it didn't work out, it happens. It's not even like the guy is shady, probably! Just kind of a dick! And, I mean, the guy is a lawyer. It's not like they're going to take him to small claims court and get a good result. But hearing my Dad talk about how he can't sleep at night worrying about the money, how this is the biggest regret of his life is breaking my heart. Is there any contingency for people like them? Anything they can do to walk away from this mistake? Again, this is Canada, Ontario.
posted by Simon! to Law & Government (8 answers total)
It's worth giving The Law Society of Upper Canada a call to see if they can offer any options or recourse. I practice in the field of attorney regulation, and in my jurisdiction, their attorney may have breached some Rules of Professional Conduct. But this attorney isn't in my jurisdiction, and I'm not as familiar with Ontario's RPCs or what recourse your parents may have. Anyway, here is the contact info:

Complaints Services
The Law Society of Upper Canada
Osgoode Hall 130 Queen Street West
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5H 2N6
(800) 268-7568
(416) 947-3310
Fax: (416) 947-5263
posted by craven_morhead at 12:52 PM on June 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

IANYL and IAN a Canadian lawyer, but I wonder if it might be possible to find a new lawyer who would be willing to take over the employment case on a contingency basis. If so, your father could hire the new lawyer and fire the old lawyer. It would keep alive the possibility of a win in the case, without incurring further debt (except for out-of-pocket expenses).
posted by merejane at 1:17 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there any contingency for people like them?

Yep, call LSUC as craven_morhead suggested, as they regulate all lawyers practicing in Ontario. Your parents can make a complaint.

Anything they can do to walk away from this mistake?

Related to merejane's answer, LSUC operates a referral service as well. This could get you a free consultation with another lawyer to walk through options you might have.

Emails and phone calls are never, ever responded to, deadlines are seemingly missed. Years have now passed with no progress, and their rare contact with him is consistently, weirdly rude and insulting, with odd remarks about how the case might be going better if they were paying him more.

This sounds like a professional conduct issue. If he's so disinterested in the case, then he shouldn't be letting them dangle and continuing soaking them for fees. He has an obligation to get back to his clients - it's actually a condition of practicing law in Ontario.

From LSUC's Rules of Professional Conduct (pdf):

3.2-1 A lawyer has a duty to provide courteous, thorough and prompt service to clients. The
quality of service required of a lawyer is service that is competent, timely, conscientious,
diligent, efficient and civil.

IANAL, but I've got some familiarity with some of the case law around this from previous work experience. There's a range of things that net a lawyer disciplinary action - it can be anything from fraud to doing things like not responding to their clients in a timely manner.

If you're morbidly curious about what sorts of things LSUC disciplines Ontario lawyers for when they violate the Society's Rules of Professional Conduct, you can browse some Law Society Tribunal decisions on CanLII.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:05 PM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer... but as others who are more knowledgeable have mentioned, there may be some serious ethical and conduct issues at play here. Do contact the Law Society as mentioned above, because if you do have recourse, that's where you're most likely to find it.
posted by azpenguin at 8:38 PM on June 15, 2015

One thing that might be worthwhile (and I swear to God that while I am a lawyer in Ontario, I am not your lawyer, I've been drinking heavily with a bunch of local lawyers and well yeah) is to apply to the court for what's called an assessment under the Solicitors Act, as to whether its reasonable or not. It really depends on whether or not your parents think that the bill is reasonable. And very strongly, a reasonable bill can be hard to determine by a lay person.

I would second the calls to talk to the law society. Filing a complaint can be pretty serious and time intensive - but it's probably the best method of vindication that exists.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:25 PM on June 15, 2015

In the US, I'd complain to the Bar Association covering that law district. I'd imagine there's something similar in Canada. A complaint may not get your money back, but it often goes into the lawyer's file in the Bar and will come up when someone searches for them and/or when his license comes up for renewal.
posted by kschang at 3:30 AM on June 16, 2015

I see that California has a fee arbitration program. I searched but did not find a similar program in Ontario but maybe calling the Law Society would help - to ask them if Canada has a program?
posted by cda at 6:00 AM on June 16, 2015

For the record, since I was unclear above (protip: don't lawyer while drunk), the equivalent program is called a Solicitor-Client Assessment.

There are some pretty strict timelines, so read that webpage carefully. And the process is slightly different if it's in Toronto or not, so again, read it carefully.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:18 AM on June 16, 2015

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