Professional misconduct cases expose Ontario lawyers’ unease over ‘misleading’ advertising

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Earlier this year, Eric Burpp admitted that it was misleading to potential clients that his large collection of personal injury law firm websites that appeared to be local contained false customer testimonials and baseless claims.

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Today, he is all set to admit that the 10 personal injury lawyers working for his Toronto firm don’t actually occupy the various Ontario office buildings featured in his network of websites.

“The fact that someone doesn’t live there doesn’t mean he can’t serve a customer in that particular city,” the 36-year-old said last week, as evidenced by the explosion of remote work during the pandemic. Pointing towards. He was reprimanded earlier this year by the legal profession’s disciplinary board for the potential to “mislead, mislead or defraud” his law practice. He was ordered to pay $42,000 in costs.

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Thirty-four years after the Law Society opened the doors for Ontario lawyers to advertise their services, critics say cases such as Burpp’s and Toronto lawyer Jeremy Diamond are textbook examples of how the province’s lawyers conduct their professional practices in America. flouting the rules of in-style marketing, and how regulators have been unable to rein in them.

But Burpp’s choice is not taking its name to stop.

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He and Diamond both argue that the only people complaining about their marketing are other lawyers. In Burpp’s case, he insisted that since his case was settled before the Law Society in June, all of his websites have been brought into compliance. “Yes, I admitted that I was cracking the rules… I was a young lawyer. I’m not breaking the rules anymore,” he said, adding that the Law Society has “cleared all my websites.”

Any of that matter, in a world already full of hyperbolic commercials claiming that reverse aging diet plans promise quick and easy weight loss as opposed to skin care products?

Advertising in law is different, said Paul Hurt, a medical malpractice attorney and author of Ontario Trial Lawyers Association Code of Conduct. “If you’re selling pizza and you want to call yourself ‘the best pizza in the world,’ that’s fine. You can’t do that as a lawyer, because it’s misleading and ultimately causes harm.”

Trevor Farrow, a law professor and former associate dean of Toronto’s Osgood Hall Law School, said lawyers have a “high obligation” to promote the practice of law in a trustworthy, honest and respectful manner. A lawyer’s role is often to “help people in their lives, their problems, often in their crises, people turn to lawyers at incredibly important times in their lives,” he said, calling lawyers “the most vulnerable people.” But hunting needs to be avoided.” Farrow said allowing lawyers to make false statements or mislead the public undermines the public’s respect for the legal profession.

“It’s not that we care about lawyer jokes, it’s not that we care about whether people like lawyers, it’s so much about people who believe in the institution of justice.” ,” They said. “When you start playing fast with the truth in a public place, people lose faith in it, and where does it go?”

Added Hurt: “In North America, there is a tendency to undermine trust in institutions. And every little thing counts. When politicians lie, when lawyers are cheating, it’s these important institutions that support democracy.” undermines confidence in me.”

It is open to debate how many Ontario lawyers are engaged in advertising that may cross the border.

Toronto’s best-known legal mass marketer, Diamond – who told regulators in 2017 that his firm paid $5 million a year to advertise on buses, billboards, print, TV and radio – argues that he is involved in advertising practices. It is a scapegoat that is extremely common, especially in the personal injury area.

Last month, he admitted before a Law Society tribunal that between 2013 and 2017 he broke rules on how lawyers present themselves to the public — including failing to acknowledge that the vast majority of clients were covered by 30 percent. was sent to other firms. fee. Diamond says everything has changed and that Diamond & Diamond now handles about 95 percent of the caseload in-house.

Days after his admission, Diamond told the tribunal that he intended to withdraw it, when the chair of the three-person panel suggested that the jointly recommended reprimand was nothing more than a “slap on the wrist”. The case is back at the end of this month.

Diamond’s legal team, which includes attorneys Brian Greenspan, Naomi Lutz, and Chris Borg-Olivier, has argued that the Law Society is selectively prosecuting Diamond “for conduct and marketing practices that he recognized for the vast majority of the profession.” expressly or expressly approved in relation to it.”

In written materials filed with the tribunal, the lawyers included a long list of examples of other members of the Personal Injury Bar “making statements that violate the Law Society’s rules relating to advertising.” A 172-page affidavit includes screenshots of websites arranged alphabetically by the law firm – and includes the Burpp Law website.

A Law Society tribunal panel rejected the motion in January, saying they did not accept Diamond’s “with respect to set aside claims of informality or unfairness.”

Adam Wagman, longtime personal injury attorney in Toronto and former head of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, rejects claims that deceptive advertising practices are “pervasive.” The “vast majority” of personal injury firms advertise appropriately, he said, “but because a handful of players do so with great frequency, and across all of these channels, it seems the advertising is wider than it really is.” far wider.”

The Law Society considers this to be an issue enough that it has warned all lawyers and paralegals that it is “treating misconduct in this area seriously and that penalties for professional misconduct, when found, will be significant.” ”

Some discipline matters fly under the radar.

In March of this year, Wendy Sokoloff, a veteran attorney at the Personal Injury Bar of Toronto, made several amendments to her marketing materials at the request of the Law Society. Those changes included agreeing to remove a brief endorsement by American TV journalist Larry King, who died earlier this year.

“Mr. King had not received services from Ms. Sokoloff and had no independent information about the quality of her services, other than interviewing her,” the Law Society committee wrote after meeting with her to discuss the matter. .

Since he complied with the request for removal, the Law Society did not take any further action. Sokoloff did not respond to Starr’s request for comment.

Also in March this year, a Law Society tribunal concluded that GTA attorney Marina Ambridge had committed professional misconduct by creating a website that contained fake testimonials as well as falsely suggesting that a former Canadian judge worked at her firm. Was. Ambridge’s license was suspended for three months and ordered to pay $7,000. The phone number listed on her website was out of service, and the star did not receive a response to an email seeking comment.

Things have gotten a lot more competitive in recent years, Wagman said, explaining that he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of lawyers practicing personal injury law over the past two decades, while the number of people needing lawyers has increased. to represent them has fallen. He cites technological advances such as blind-spot warnings, and better airbag technology, which lead to fewer car accidents, “and those that are happening result in less serious injuries.” Also, “at the urging of insurance companies and the insurance lobby, successive governments have changed the law to make it more difficult for people to sue.”

There’s another reason some lawyers are willing to bend or break the rules: “People won’t spend the kind of money they’re making on advertising if it doesn’t work out,” Wagman said.

Ask Diamond.

His firm has grown from three lawyers in 2013 to 51 today, and is “quickly on its way to becoming as recognizable as Tim Hortons and Molson Brewing,” according to A self-upgrading blog post on the firm’s website, which is called a hurt, is a violation of the rules of professional conduct.

The Diamond blog post continues, “What was keeping many law firms from moving beyond their pond was simply a lack of advertising,” adding that we took advantage of a number of marketing techniques and communicated directly to our target market.

Burpp, one of Diamond’s competitors, agrees that thinking outside the box is a winning strategy, even if you make an enemy and earn a regulatory reprimand. “I am a businessman before being a lawyer,” he told regulators in 2018, although he said he handles some files and is involved in daily operations.

And while he won’t go as far as to call himself a vagabond or a visionary, he’s clearly inspired by some people like that.

“Every industry evolves with marketing, if you take Facebook, it evolved. Some people evolve … and some people sit back and do the status quo,” he told the Star this week, “Mark Zuckerberg looked to the future 10 years ahead.”

Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter who covers crime and the courts for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @powellbetsy



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