JOE GROIA SCUTTLES INTO THE BOARDROOM of his Bay Street law office in a hurry. He’s fifteen minutes late for our 9 a.m. interview.
“Hello, I’m Joe Groia,” he says, hand outstretched. “Give me one moment. I’m just going to grab a cup of coffee.”
Already seated at the boardroom table, I reach down into my briefcase and pluck out my notepad. By the time I look up, Groia is back, closing the door behind him, coffee mug in hand. The grizzled securities lawyer lowers himself into a chair at the head of the table and rests his hands in his lap.
In a relaxed, soft-spoken voice, he explains his eyebrow-raising decision to run, in April, to be one of the 40 lawyers elected as a bencher at the Law Society of Upper Canada. After all, this is an institution against which he has waged a heated, and very public, court battle for the better part of the last decade.
In 2011, after a drawn-out investigation, the Law Society ruled that Groia violated its courtroom civility rules for his behaviour, now more than 15 years ago, at the trial of John Felderhof, a Bre-X Minerals geologist charged with insider trading and publishing misleading press releases. (In 2007, Groia won an acquittal for Felderhof on all charges.) During that trial, the judge never reprimanded Groia, but another judge later wrote that Groia launched “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity” and his submissions sometimes “descended from legal argument to irony to sarcasm to petulant invective.”
Groia has fought that ruling tooth-and-nail, sinking $1 million into his defence, in both time and legal fees. And yet, so far, he has lost at every turn — the latest defeat coming last week, when Ontario’s Divisional Court upheld his one-month suspension and a previous order that he pay the Law Society $200,000 in costs. (He is in the process of asking for leave to challenge the ruling at the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, will go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.)
Groia says that the Law Society, by going after him, has sent a chilling message to all lawyers that the Law Society can swoop down at any time and charge them for past courtroom behaviour — even if the trial judge never complained.
And so, Groia wants to serve as a bencher, in part, to curb the Law Society’s ability to retroactively police lawyers.
“I will fight this for as long and as hard as I can,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Running for bencher is what I see as a logical extension of what I’ve done so far.” (For the record, Groia’s candidacy is well within the rules: he can run for bencher as long as he isn’t suspended “at the time” he signs his nomination form or on the day of the election.)
Groia is also baffled that his case seems to rank so high on the Law Society’s to-do list. “The Law Society demonstrates a zealousness in my prosecution, which surprisingly they don’t seem to demonstrate when it comes to lawyers who steal money from trust accounts,” he says, referring to a recent Toronto Star investigation that showed how the Law Society often fails to report the crimes of its members to police. (Earlier this year, LSUC treasurer Janet Minor met with Police Chief Bill Blair to improve relations.) “I can’t explain,” Groia adds, “how 40 very smart, well-educated professionals cannot, as a group, understand how far away from the needs of the public they have become.”
When given an opportunity to respond to Groia’s criticisms, Law Society spokesperson Susan Tonkin simply said that last week’s decision at Divisional Court, where Groia lost his appeal, “speaks for itself.”
GROIA WAS BORN IN 1954 AND GREW UP AT BLOOR AND LANSDOWNE. His mother worked at the post office and his father was a bellman. “Joe was fond of telling us, in the old days, the tale of his father who was the head bellhop of the Royal York hotel,” recalls Julia Dublin, a securities lawyer who worked under Groia at the Ontario Securities Commission, where he ran the enforcement branch in the 1980s. “It was a big influence on his life, I think.”
Indeed, Groia is proud of his “working-class” upbringing, believing that it gave him perspective and empathy. But he also recognizes that, in the legal profession, it’s much easier for young layers to land a big-firm job if they come from a rich family. “What I have realized is that when you come from a working-class family, and you don’t have the social network of a UCC [Upper Canada College] grad, you’re not seen as valuable of a hire because you aren’t seen as someone who can bring in business.”
His sensitivity to that inherent classism in the profession continues to inform his view of the legal world — and, by extension, his bencher platform, which touches on a range of issues, not just civility.
For instance, he wants to ban unpaid articling jobs — unless the firm promises not to charge clients for the student’s work. “What you’re not allowed to do, in my view, is have somebody come and work, don’t pay them, and then bill them out and make other people pay for their service,” he says, speaking firmly. “It’s shameful.” (This past year, there were about 50 unpaid articling positions across Ontario.) And Groia feels the same way about the work placements that students complete as part of the Law Practice Program — an initiative he otherwise supports as “the best solution on the table” to deal with the declining number of articling jobs.
Groia is also “absolutely in favour of Alternative Business Structures” — that is, allowing non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms. Not because he thinks it will improve access to justice or spur innovation in the law, but because, as far as he can tell, the corporatization of the legal economy has already occurred.
“The reality is, the large white-shoe firms operate as sophisticated businesses with sophisticated management structures,” he says, pointing out the fact that mega-firm Dentons is now made up of more than 6,500 lawyers. “I gotta tell you, I don’t see any real difference between a 3,000-lawyer partnership and an ABS with 3,000 shareholders and employees.”
And Groia does not feel any nostalgia for the smaller, tight-knit partnerships of earlier generations. “We all talk about the good old days when there were 12 partners, and you sat around the table and smoked cigars and there were no women in the room,” he says. Then, squinting his eyes, he adds: “I’m not quite sure why that’s the good old days.”
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Groia thinks the bencher election, at least for him, will amount to a referendum on his civility charges.
And, if that’s the case, he’s hopeful. Over the years, he says plenty of lawyers have come up to him in the halls of the courthouse to express support for how he handled himself during his legal troubles.
One such example is David Sterns, a partner at Sotos LLP and the second vice president at the Ontario Bar Association, who has publicly endorsed Groia’s candidacy. “When I ask myself why do I support him, it’s really because he’s shown character in the face of adversity,” he says. “He’s waged a lonely and costly battle with the regulator. And that takes a lot of character. It takes perseverance. I’m sure it’s been hell.”
And yet, all Groia has at the moment are those sorts of anecdotes. After the election, he’ll finally have some proof.
“If I lose the election, that will be it,” Groia says, matter-of-factly. “Then the profession will have said, ‘We don’t share Joe’s concerns. We don’t share Joe’s values.’ And life will go on.”
After close to an hour of chatting, Groia, still relaxed, calmly tells me he has to run to another meeting. With a plan in the works to appeal the decision against him once more, he is scheduled to talk strategy with his own lawyer, Earl Cherniak, a veteran litigator at Lerners LLP.
The moment we say goodbye, he springs out of his chair, darts out of the room and turns to his assistant. “Did you let him know I’ll be late?”
Read more of our 2015 Bencher Election coverage:
Bencher Janet Leiper launches a joint campaign with first-time
candidate Isfahan Merali to help promote a fresh legal voice