Disbarred lawyer Vassilios Apostolopoulos has won his bid to have his licence to practise law restored following an inspiring comeback from years of personal struggle that included homelessness, a battle with mental illness, and a return to a law school where he had been a star student.
Apostolopoulos’ extraordinary story is one of the fall of a legal star to society’s depths. But unlike the fall of many other stars, Apostolopoulos’ descent wasn’t about greed. In fact, it was largely out of his control. His demon was his own mind, one that defied him, separated him from reality, and took him on a path many others who have suffered from mental-health crises have unwittingly followed.
Apostolopoulos was a promising student who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1983 followed by a master’s degree in 1985 before moving on to doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. He then switched gears at Osgoode Hall Law School, where he earned his law degree as third in his class. He also received three prizes and an invitation to apply for a Supreme Court clerkship. It was 1993 and he was 34 years old. He began practising at Davies Ward after articling there.
In 2002, the law society found Apostolopoulos guilty of professional misconduct and disbarred him. He had failed to account for $102,400 that were the proceeds of the sale of his client D.V.’s business. He also failed to follow up on an undertaking with another lawyer to discharge a mortgage.
As a result, he lost his practice and his home. His marriage fell apart and he twice found himself homeless and living on the streets. Apostolopoulos suffered from serious symptoms of psychological distress dating back to 1990. He had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, but in 1998, after three years of taking medication and undergoing therapy, he stopped. By 2002, he was jobless and isolated.
“The years after that . . . were catastrophic,” says Apostolopoulos, who notes the stigma was particularly painful.
“Stigma remains the ultimate and universal barrier that everyone who experiences such medical conditions confronts on a daily basis and in a myriad of ways. It cuts across all classes, professions, and cultural backgrounds. It continues to insinuate itself in institutional practices and public attitudes. Stigma hinders effective treatment, inclusion, and meaningful recovery.
“It compels people to suffer in silence at work and in their homes. Stigma is a key reason why, despite the work and commitment of so many, mental-health care still remains too institutionally fragmented to meet the real needs and protect the autonomy and dignity of so many vulnerable people.”
Apostolopoulos describes the stigma he saw around him as limiting and constraining. “It robs you,” he says.
He went back to treatment in January 2003 when his problem was linked to obstructive sleep apnea as the actual cause of the mood disorder. Sleep interruptions — more than 50 per hour — impacted his memory, judgment, and ability to function. Through the use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine, he was able to achieve a complete cure. He calls it the seminal event.
“It was a primary sleep disorder that took years to diagnose,” he says. “Within months . . . I started rebuilding life.
It wasn’t easy. My financial circumstances were precarious.”
But the treatment didn’t result in an immediate fix to his life.
He had yet to hit rock bottom. Without money, he couldn’t afford a home. With no home, he had no reliable access to electricity to power the machine that delivered his sanity. He was homeless and his psychological well-being was suffering.
Apostolopoulos decided that was enough. He registered in the country’s only graduate medical law program.
Money, however, was still an issue, and while working on his master’s degree, he found himself homeless again and then back in the hospital. But those around him rallied and he was able to complete his degree at Osgoode Hall with distinction. He is now working on his doctorate. He didn’t share his story at school until much later as he didn’t want people to measure his work by what he had gone through.
Professor Bruce Ryder had identified Apostolopoulos as a gifted student during his early years working on his first degree at Osgoode Hall. In his letter of support to the law society, Ryder, now an assistant dean, said Apostolopoulos stood out from the others not just because of his evident intellect but also his humility and grace.
“These traditional qualities distinguish Vassili as someone who appears to have arrived from a different time and place,” he wrote.
When Apostolopoulos returned to continue his studies many years later, Ryder was shocked to hear he had been disbarred.
“He strikes me now as . . . the same brilliant student with impeccable personal qualities I knew back in 1988-1991.”
Professor Joan Gilmour, who developed the university’s health law program, said she was completely unaware of Apostolopoulos’ struggles while he worked on his master’s degree. She saw him only as an excellent student. “His academic accomplishments are all the more notable in light of these circumstances,” she wrote in her letter of support.
Apostolopoulos knows he can use his experiences in public policy, advocacy, and perhaps teaching. But right now, he’s concentrating on his thesis focusing on the law and ethics of assisted suicide.
“He went from having a successful career to being homeless due to his mental illness,” says lawyer Barry Weintraub, who represented Apostolopoulos after he lost his licence as they worked towards a resolution of the outstanding issues.
“After finally getting proper diagnosis and treatment, he had the strength of character and determination to rebuild his life. I met Mr. Apostolopoulos around the time he was beginning his recovery process. He struck me from the beginning as being very realistic about his situation and determined to make the best of it and reclaim his life to the extent possible.
“The law society has made the right decision in reinstating Mr. Apostolopoulos. He values integrity in life and approaches matters with a long-term perspective.”
In applying the tests required for a successful application, the LSUC hearing panel decided last month that “Apostolopoulos’ course of conduct shows he has faced adversity and made it a stepping-stone to the future. His long and sincere commitment to the new goal of furthering mental-health law and indeed the goal itself shows that he can be trusted and is in every way fit to be a lawyer.”
The three-member panel chaired by Adriana Doyle found support from his medical team, lawyers, and community leaders all indicating Apostolopoulos’ honesty, integrity, modesty, and sincerity. They were extremely positive about his prospects.
“The panel accepts, on a very high standard of proof, that Mr. Apostolopoulos is extremely unlikely to misconduct himself again,” the panel wrote, noting Apostolopoulos had tried to repay D.V., who eventually told the law society he had been repaid in full and that he didn’t oppose his reinstatement as a lawyer.
“Not only were the consequences of the DV misconduct devastating, but its underlying cause was a psychiatric disorder that has been successfully treated. While nothing is ever certain, the panel thinks this is one of the best cases for reinstatement the law society is likely to see.”
“It’s an amazing story of redemption,” says Ian Roland, who acted on Apostolopoulos’ behalf at the hearing.
“The solution was easy, at the end of the day. But what is extraordinary about Vassilios is that he was able to soldier on . . . and redeem himself simply by hard work. And that strength of purpose is really amazing.”
This past summer was particularly heart-warming for the reinstated lawyer. He finally stood among his peers at the hearing in his bid to restore his licence. He also attended his son’s graduation. At age 22, Dimitri Apostolopoulos is beginning his doctoral studies in philosophy at Notre Dame University on a full scholarship.
“He has told me he is proud of me and that he has a perspective of the world he wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Apostolopoulos.
“Things happen, but sometimes things work out.”