Lawyers behaving badly | Jo-Anne Stark

By Jo-Anne Stark

Law360 Canada (June 14, 2023, 2:10 PM EDT) --
Jo-Anne Stark
Jo-Anne Stark
Over the last several years, I have written over 20 articles for The Lawyers’ Daily/Law360 Canada. This will be my final “Dear Jo” submission, as I launch into new career opportunities:

Dear Jo: Recently, I have seen comments on social media about inappropriate behaviour on the part of lawyers — and some of these complaints are from other lawyers! What is happening to our profession, and where is the integrity?

When I followed in the footsteps of several family members to enter law, I was proud to belong to an esteemed profession which values civility and has integrity. But I have witnessed some of that erode over the last 30 years in this profession.

Recently, a relative asked me to intervene with a lawyer who was sending her aggressive collection letters for an account that was in dispute. On the telephone call, he was very rude and dismissive to me. He kept making unreasonable demands and refused to provide any documentation to substantiate any claim. It was clear to me that a statutory limitation period would have long since expired — yet he threatened to launch a lawsuit and damage this young person’s credit score.

His voice became louder and more threatening, and I could see why my relative wanted me to deal with him, as she suffers from anxiety. During the call, I was subjected to posturing: “I work at a really, really big law firm,” verbal bullying: “gimme a number, just gimme a number!”, to downright insulting and even mocking me and the family: “you must be sooo proud of her, she doesn’t pay her bills!”. I was thoroughly disgusted and considered reporting him to the law society, only to see he already had an outstanding disciplinary action underway. I’m guessing that he had no idea I was a senior member of the legal profession as he felt completely justified in escalating the conversation into an argument, yelling at me; I learned many decades ago that a lawyer who uses such tactics is only doing so because they probably don’t have a valid legal argument to support their position.

I also have had the misfortune of dealing with a challenging lawyer on a volunteer committee. One where I sat witnessing 18 months of abuse, harassment and bullying of other committee members. People were often left in tears, traumatized — and then accused by him as being “overly-sensitive.” From make-work projects created and dumped on people already overloaded with work, to coming up with excuses not to co-operate or even participate in tasks, to being rude and attacking other members (even external companies to the point that they terminated a contract with our organization) — this person’s trail of destruction really knew no bounds. Not only was there a complete lack of integrity on his part, but the presence of this person completely derailed the good work of committed volunteers.

They say that certain professions are ripe with people suffering from NPD — Narcissistic Personality Disorder: the DSM-5 indicates that: “Many highly successful individuals display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting, and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress, do they constitute narcissistic personality disorder.” From stockbrokers to lawyers, people with patterns of NPD tend to flock to certain occupations where they can find ways to fill their needs and where their personality trait is even celebrated to some extent; shockingly, lawyers even make the list of careers chosen by psychopaths!

Although most lawyers are decent people filled with integrity, those who are not are quite capable of causing tremendous damage to everyone and everything in their path. While bad behaviour can be corrected with awareness and education, there are multiple instances of where it cannot — perhaps due to NPD or another underlying illness — leaving the rest of us to deal with the fallout.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” — Edward Bulwer-Lytton

For the last few months, I’ve been lending support to Can’t Buy My Silence, a national advocacy campaign to end the misuse of non-disclosure agreements; I previously wrote about the CBA resolution and the need to ensure that NDAs are not used to cover up abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination. Little did I know at the time that this would result in dozens of requests for television and newspaper interviews, a podcast and radio shows, and even a press conference with a senator as she introduced a new federal bill on this issue.

Yet, despite inadvertently becoming some sort of “national spokesperson” for giving victims of bullying a voice, I still find myself subjected to people in my own profession who bully and harass to manipulate others.

Some would argue that prospective lawyers be tested for honesty, integrity and having a moral compass by law societies; in fact, a campaign against lawyers behaving badly is nothing new, and is even the subject of a podcast of that same name. This doesn’t end with behaviour of lawyers while acting in a legal capacity — scrutiny of conduct often extends beyond the courtroom: one lawyer, the president of a condo association, was barred from a law society for making up accusations of misconduct against other board members, while sending them “unsavoury” emails. He was replaced as president and eventually moved out of the building, while facing a hearing about his character with the law society for “character assassination.” The sad reality is that often, these same lawyers are eventually disciplined for bad behaviour years later, after finally being admitted to the law society. A tiger cannot change their stripes…

This brings me back to the lawyer’s offensive question as to whether I am proud of my relative — yes, I am so very proud of her for overcoming life-threatening health issues in her youth and her exemplary marks as she completes her schooling. She has behaved far more “professionally” than the lawyer who has launched an unsubstantiated personal attack on her. The question should really be: are we proud of members of our profession; and, of our own behaviour as a lawyer? For the most part, sure. But for those who have no integrity and who insist on bullying tactics, I remain wholly disgusted — and I refuse to remain silent so that offensive misconduct is allowed to continue, unabated.

As I bring this message to a close (or perhaps it is truly a “rant’?), I am reminded of the many people in our profession who remain determined to conduct themselves properly and who refuse to stoop down to the level of others. Over the last few years, it’s been a pleasure to work with many of these people in my Certified Legal Coach training program; that training is based on principles of positive psychology and the amazing impact it has on people who are managing their own legal problems.

I may be but one small voice — but collectively, we as lawyers can have a very powerful voice that can bring about the change needed to remove bullying from our profession.*

*Special thank you to Peter Carter and Law360 Canada for giving me a voice for all these years!

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to Law360 Canada, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at peter.carter@lexisnexis.ca or call 647-776-6740.