Road to recovery: life after a professional misconduct complaint
By Kate Wallace, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor
This is part one of a four-part series on navigating complaints to the Law Society of Upper Canada. In this instalment, Toronto-area civil litigator Darryl Singer discusses his work representing lawyers at the Law Society Tribunal, and what inspired his interest in the area.
When lawyers face disciplinary action at the Law Society Tribunal, they often assume it’s the end of their career, says Toronto-area civil litigator Darryl Singer.
Such was the case recently with a 45-year old lawyer who called on Singer after learning he was facing disciplinary action at the tribunal, he tells AdvocateDaily.com.
“The daily stress wore him down,” says Singer, principal of Singer Barristers Professional Corporation. “He had financial pressures and developed deep depression, which he tried to cure by self-medicating with alcohol, and that led to mistakes in his practice. He thought his career was over.”
Singer, who has defended numerous cases of lawyers confronting disciplinary action, says that while his client will have to serve a suspension, he will get his career back on track.
“As a lawyer, it’s always a daunting experience to have a complaint filed against you, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of your practice,” he says.
Singer has a special affinity for this type of work because of his own experience.
In 2008, his personal life and legal practice were a mess. Struggling with the mental health trio of depression, anxiety and addiction, he was neglecting his work to the point that multiple clients and colleagues reported him to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s complaints department, he says.
He pleaded guilty to professional misconduct for failing to reply to communications of the law society and served a 30-day suspension.
In February, Singer shared his story in a Globe and Mail editorial entitled “A lawyer’s secret: Addiction, anxiety and depression,” recounting his experience of getting hooked on OxyContin and the concomitant mental health issues he suffered. At his lowest point, he felt so badly he could not get out of bed or muster the will even to check his voice mail.
“As a lawyer, a father, a person, I had reached rock bottom,” Singer writes.
He made getting better his full-time job, closing his practice for a year to focus on recovery. In the end, his career hasn’t suffered, and he’s heartened that, rather than shun him, colleagues have rallied to help.
Singer says his story is far from unique.
“It is a legal-profession secret that is finally seeing the light of day: depression, anxiety and addiction to prescription drugs are a real and urgent problem for lawyers,” he writes.
Research bears this out, finding that lawyers are three times more likely to suffer severe depression or addiction than the general public.
In 2010, following his recovery and his experience with the LSUC discipline tribunal, Singer began to devote a good deal of his practice to defending lawyers against whom complaints have been made, parlaying his earlier experience representing pharmacists and other professionals in misconduct cases into his own profession.
“I started doing that work as a direct result of my own engagement with the system, and realizing that the vast majority of people were not there because they stole money or did bad things,” he says. “The majority are there because there is a mental health issue, a substance abuse problem, a family or financial crisis. There are things that drive people there, external issues that prevent them from practising in an optimal way.”
Singer is also concerned that a simple complaint can easily spiral into more serious investigations, as well as more consequences.
Along with the mental health issues he addresses in his Globe editorial, he also has clients who are struggling with physical health problems that impact their work. One of his clients, a paralegal with cancer, was in and out of hospital for chemotherapy. During her treatment, she neglected a couple of files that resulted in complaints against her.
“Should she have referred those clients out? Yes. But is that something we want to suspend people for, and potentially damage their reputation and impact their income? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The LSUC should focus more on early intervention, Singer says. He’d like to see investigations shift into help mode when mental or physical health problems are revealed to be at the root of a complaint.
“They ought to be saying at the beginning of an investigation, this person didn’t do something wrong because they’re bad, this person did something wrong because she has an illness,” he says. “How can we help her? Not, how can we push this to the discipline committee so we can suspend her?”
In the next installment in this series, Singer will address the steps lawyers can take when a complaint is filed against them with the LSUC.