People I Met Practicing Law

People I Met Practicing Law Episode Six: Tragically, Terminally, Toxic

I met Paul at my very first job as a lawyer. Paul was a commercial real estate lawyer. He was hard-working and extremely capable.  Paul thought quite a bit of himself and other people who he considered to be intelligent and diligent. However, Paul did not suffer fools gladly.

Back in the day when there was no title insurance and real estate was a low-technology endeavour, a purchaser’s lawyers had to search title manually and submit their detailed requisitions to the vendor’s lawyer. At that time, Paul would represent builders selling lots in a subdivision or units in a condominium. In order to reduce the work required in responding to hundreds of requisition letters, Paul would prepare a Title Advice Statement. Essentially this meant that Paul would search title himself and prepare a memorandum setting out every requisition that a purchaser’s lawyer might submit and his answers to each of the requisitions. He would send the Title Advice Statement to each purchaser as soon as the agreement of purchase and sale was signed.

There used to be (and perhaps still are) some residential real estate lawyers in Ontario who, simply put, were not that good at what they did. Some of them would not read the package of documents that Paul sent to them and would send Paul their requisition letters covering the same items which Paul had dealt with in the Title Advice Statement. Paul would ignore them. Occasionally these lawyers would phone Paul to follow up on their requisition letters. Paul would not take their calls or reply to their voice-mail messages. On rare occasions some of these lawyers would get Paul on the phone to ask when they could expect an answer to their requisition letter. Paul would tell them that since they were charging their client a fee for doing the work, they should read the damn Title Advice Statement and not waste his bloody time. Then he would hang up on them.

On the other hand, very occasionally a purchaser’s lawyer would write to Paul and acknowledge that they had received the Title Advice Statement but had a requisition that they did not think was covered by the Title Advice Statement. If the requisition had any merit, Paul would spend all of the time that was necessary to provide a proper response and work collaboratively with the lawyer to resolve the issue.

On other occasions, a lawyer who missed the time period for submitting requisitions or who for some reason was not ready to close on time or needed some other accommodation would contact Paul to ask for an indulgence. Paul would always say no.

Paul had a colleague in his office who I will call Henry. Henry was every bit as intelligent and industrious as Paul, but unlike Paul he was also a warm and friendly fellow who treated everyone who he came across with the utmost respect.  On one occasion a purchaser’s lawyer who was unable to obtain an indulgence from Paul called Henry to ask him to speak to Paul on his behalf. In the course of their discussion, Henry argued that if Paul kept dealing with other lawyers in his uncompromising manner, no-one would grant Paul an indulgence when he required one. Paul’s response was that he would never need to ask for an accommodation from another lawyer, because he knew what he was doing, worked hard and did not make mistakes.

Now, something that I have observed about people is that they tend to deal with everyone in their lives in a similar manner. If they are uncompromising, opinionated, self-righteous sons of bitches to opposing counsel, they are usually not a pleasure for their associates or partners to deal with either. In Paul’s case, he dealt appropriately with members of his firm who he respected and treated those who had not earned his respect with disdain.

For example, a young associate with about five years of experience transferred to Paul’s firm from another firm. Shortly after 5 pm on his very first day in the office, this associate was walking toward the door, briefcase in hand. He had the misfortune of running into Paul on his way out, whereupon Paul asked him where he was going. The associate told Paul that he was going home. Paul asked him whether he had any work to do and the associate said that he had completed everything that he had been assigned that day. Paul told him to wait a minute, went to his office and returned with a pile of files which he handed to the young lawyer and said something along the lines of “now that you have work to do, you should go back to your office and do it.”

There was another occasion on which Paul was representing a client in a dispute. He thought opposing counsel was not dealing with the matter in an appropriate manner. Wanting to make that evident to the other lawyer’s client, Paul copied the other lawyer’s client on a letter to his counsel. Paul’s hope was that the client would be concerned about the threats that Paul was making in the letter and pressure his lawyer to accede to Paul’s demands.

The other lawyer complained to Paul in writing that he was breaching the rule about communicating directly with another counsel’s client and threatened to take the matter to the Law Society if Paul ever did that again. Paul responded in a less than friendly manner and again copied his opponent’s client on his response. The other lawyer had what we used to refer to as a ‘shit fit’ and complained to the Law Society. Paul explained that he had not communicated behind the other lawyer’s back which is what the rule was intended to prohibit, since the letter had been written to counsel and just copied to his client. Paul got a slap on the wrist which he considered to be a victory.

I lost track of Paul when I changed firms many years ago. A few years later, I learned that he had taken his own life.

The point of this story is that as lawyers we often deal with our colleagues and opposing counsel without knowing anything about their personal lives. Some of them are terminally unhappy. Some of them are struggling with their mental health. Of course, all of this impacts how they deal with their partners, associates, employees, clients and opposing counsel. I imagine that this is probably true in a myriad of other professions and industries as well. Let’s work to have some empathy, seek insight and understanding of others, and not exacerbate bad situations.

And, if we cannot do anything to help, let’s find ways to stay the hell out of the way of toxic people.

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