A new campaign cracks down on lawyers who are rude and aggressive — with clients or even in their private lives
Young, ambitious and intelligent, Ryan Manilla was, by almost all accounts, on the road to becoming a ﬁrst-rate lawyer. He excelled at Osgoode Hall Law School, graduating in the top 10 per cent of his class. He won a summer job in the New York City offices of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, one of Canada’s leading firms. In 2009, he completed his articles with Pinkofskys in Toronto, where he intended to practise criminal law.
But in September, Manilla’s career came to a crashing halt. The Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), which regulates Ontario’s lawyers and paralegals, denied his application to join the profession, based on its ages-old “good character” requirement. (Manilla’s appeal was heard last week, and a decision is pending.) It wasn’t a strictly professional issue that convinced the law society panel to bar Manilla—it was the young man’s dealings with his condominium board.
Canadian law societies have required lawyers to be “of good character” virtually as long as the profession has been regulated, but it’s rare for someone to be barred because his character was found lacking. Even the meaning of “good character” can be a little bit hazy: it isn’t defined in the Law Society Act, but it’s been described as having a strong moral fibre, a belief the law must be upheld, and an appreciation of the difference between right and wrong. The law society can wield that requirement to decide who gets to be a lawyer—and sometimes, who doesn’t, as the Manilla case shows.
In 2008, as board president, Manilla became embroiled in a dispute over an increase in condo fees, which he opposed. After sending unsavoury emails to his fellow condo board members suggesting they ran “the risk of being shot by residents,” he was replaced as president, but stayed on the board and continued to fight the proposed fee hike, boasting that he got a thrill out of making other members “squirm.” That December, Manilla forged a letter from a woman claiming to be a private investigator, making up allegations of kickbacks and other wrongdoing among board members—something the law society panel deemed “character assassination.”
In March 2009, Manilla, then 27, was charged with four counts of criminal harassment; further charges followed of intimidating a witness, threatening death, and failing to comply with an undertaking given to a police officer. In June, all charges were dropped after Manilla met certain conditions. He sold his condo, apologized to targeted board members, and made a donation of $250 to the SickKids Foundation in their names. But not enough time had passed, the law society panel ruled, to ensure Manilla was of “good character” and deserved to join the profession. In fact, he’d confessed to falsifying the letter just five days before his hearing.
Manilla certainly offended the members of his condo board and behaved in unscrupulous ways, but whether this should bar him from the legal profession is harder to say. “Can we have a good lawyer, and a bad person?” says Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. “Is the law society required to govern virtue in its members? It’s a tough question.”
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