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Paralegal advertising under the microscope

|Written By Shannon Kari

A paralegal in Toronto is facing a potential misconduct hearing over allegations that his “we win or it’s free” claim in his online advertising is misleading to clients.

The Paralegal Society of Ontario urges its members to ‘stay within the rules’ in their advertising, says John Tzanis.

The notice of application issued last month by the Law Society of Upper Canada against Benito (Benny) Zappia is believed to be one of the first times online advertising by a paralegal has been at the centre of misconduct allegations.

In the competitive paralegal industry in Ontario, it’s not uncommon to see web sites where firms make broad claims about their success rates, describe themselves as traffic ticket specialists or offer unverifiable testimonials from former clients. For example, on the web site of one paralegal firm, a person identified only by his first name states the firm “got me off even though I was guilty.”

The term specialist is “reserved for lawyers with the certified specialist designation,” says Susan Tonkin, a spokeswoman for the law society.

There are no ongoing discipline proceedings involving the use of the word “specialist” in online advertising and the law society doesn’t proactively monitor this type of marketing. “Licensees who make claims that may contravene these rules may be brought to our attention via complaints from the profession and the public,” says Tonkin.

The president of the Paralegal Society of Ontario says it urges its members to “stay within the rules” in advertising and not to try to test the boundaries of what they can do. John Tzanis notes the law society web site provides clear information about acceptable marketing and urges paralegals to look to it for guidance.

Christine Stover, a paralegal in southwestern Ontario who also teaches an ethics course for paralegals at Fanshawe College, suggests the large number of people in the profession in Ontario may have an impact on how some individuals advertise. “You are trying to make a living. Everyone is on a razor’s edge. It is a very competitive business,” says Stover. She ran as a candidate for law society bencher and is pushing for a requirement for more substantive legal training for paralegals.

In the notice issued against Zappia by the law society on March 10, it alleges that contrary to the paralegal rules of conduct, his advertising related to services and fees in 2013 was “misleading” and “failed to advise that he charges a non-refundable fee to every client.” As well, the advertising suggested “he offers the ‘we win or it’s free’ option to every client, when this offer is not made to all clients and in any event when this offer should not be offered to clients requesting criminal law services,” the law society alleges.

Zappia tells Law Times he believes his advertising complies with the rules for paralegals. “I know that this is going to be resolved,” says Zappia, who points to the disclaimers accessible on the bottom right-hand corner of the main page on his web site.

It includes four separate disclaimers. “Please note that every client pays an upfront non-refundable disbursement fee for services rendered upon the initial retainer,” says one disclaimer.

“Our fee guarantee is that if we do not do exactly as directed by our clients in our contract, you will receive a refund of all monies,” reads another.

Frank Alfano, a paralegal in southern Ontario, says he would welcome more scrutiny of advertising and notes he has communicated with the law society about what appears on his web sites, including the fact he teaches advanced paralegal courses in criminal law and founded the Ontario Provincial Offences Advocacy Group in 2007.

A firm co-founded by Alfano, who was a candidate for bencher, has accreditation to conduct two continuing professional development courses for paralegals, according to the law society. Alfano says he uses the term “advanced” because a criminal law course he teaches is “like the Reader’s Digest version” of what people learn in law school. The paralegal advocacy group has a Facebook and LinkedIn page but doesn’t appear to have much recent activity. “It is still in its infancy,” he says.

Alfano, one of the principals of Traffic Ticket Paralegal, was convicted in February of the Highway Traffic Act offence of driving while suspended for unpaid fines. A justice of the peace rejected Alfano’s assertion that police had unfairly targeted him when they stopped him outside a courthouse in Burlington, Ont.

Alfano says he contacted the LSUC and was told he didn’t need to disclose this conviction when he was running as a candidate for one the bencher positions reserved for paralegals in the recent elections. As well, Alfano tells Law Times he intends to challenge his most recent conviction and seek a stay of proceedings at the sentencing hearing scheduled for June.

  • Ron Payne
    I think Benito (Benny) Zappia should be commended for being upfront and telling potential clients what area of law he works for free on (pro bono) (losing cases). This guy should be running the LSUC.

    Ron Payne
    Welfare Legal
    Hamilton, Ontario
  • Paralegal graduate
    It is sadly entertaining and nothing more to bear witness to some of the commentary in this string that actually belongs on fb feeds of teenagers and not in a forum designated for legal professionals. The article's subject was originally concerning ethical advertising and should have been left at that, but instead it enveloped someone else's matters that appear to be a stab at a contributing commenter within the article and allowed a loss of focus. Lose the last two paragraphs as they are completely unnecessary and left a bad taste.
  • Mark K
    I have to agree with PG. The last two paragraphs, and some the commentary thereafter, are really unnecessary and have no place here. What was the real aim of the article? If it mentioned Mr. Alfano in a paragraph as a premise, then that would be valid. But four? And ending with that and no on advertising generally?

    I agree generally with the proposition that we need to be careful in our advertising but the rest seems like a hit piece.
  • honest paralegal
    Hey Frank. You do make my laugh. Your website is great. But why don't you say under the section about your law school that the California School of Law is an online law school. Oh I guess you forgot.
  • Student at Law
    Instead of bashing paralegals Shannon and Stanley, why not face reality.Alot of successful lawyers team up with paralegals. Honestly some people have nothing better to do then pin point someone's errors. Please grow up and act professional.
  • Harry Fine
    I was shocked and disappointed that for whatever reason, the writer jumped the track and went after Frank out of nowhere. I'm not defending Frank's actions, but it was such a non-sequeter, it was like the writer had made a cut and paste error.
  • Joe Wannabe
    What a horribly written article. Go back to school and learn to write properly! Shannon Kari and Elizabeth LeReverend are two of the most biased writers in the field.
  • Stanley Cramer
    Ah the cess pool that is the paralegal industry.

    Remember lawyers, you are simply licensees, just like the riff-raff in the article and the in the comments.

    Well done LSUC, rather than increasing public confidence in lawyers you drag them down with these dregs.
  • Mark K
    Stanley, get over yourself; or must I drag out every case of misconduct on your side of the aisle? Hmmm missing millions from condo deal, wasn't that just in news?
  • Stephanie L
    Stanley I'm not really sure exactly who you think you are or what gives you the right to be so condescending. Perhaps you are a lawyer who was put in your place by a lowly, or perhaps out smarted by one of us dregs?
  • honest paralegal
    Mr. Gill, how is it defaming him. Unless it is a lie. It is not private and he (luckily) already lost the election. Also what can the law society do to a journalist.
  • Real Issue
    It is really a shame that the author could not find enough material to write about and so decided to throw in a completely unrelated topic in the last couple of paragraphs. And I use the word "topic" very lightly. It is not news, nor newsworthy. A journalist should know this. A piece on LSUC licensees advertising online is an interesting topic that would have stood well on it's own. WIth perhaps some comparison to L1 licensees who have committed similar faux pas or comparative to how American firms advertise. I'm not a journalist and I came up with some material off the top of my head. But why research and write a decent article that is both informative and shows the author's skill, when you can add to the trash "news" about someone's driving record. I agree with Mr. Ranjit SIngh GIll. Shame, shame...
  • Jenny Nordserm
    I agree with Olivia. Everyone makes mistakes. Just because you do this for a living, you should know better? Pretty ignorant comment..
  • Ranjit Singh Gill
    It is sad when one person offers to serve/help all paralegals in general and decides to run for the bencher's position but alas some very unprofessional person decides to uses his driving record to defame him and now an article appears on the law times on advertising and the mud is being thrown again at Frank and his driving record. Is this not something the law society should look at and stop. This is his private driving record why is it being bashed around in public. I should say shame, shame on you Ms. Kari for your garbage journalistic values. I hope these attacks on people's private matters should stop as of now....
  • dumb and dumber
    i guess the point is if you defend this stuff you should know better. and this guy is a teacher. yikes. and in full disclosure olivia used to work with frank. ouch the truth hurts.
  • Olivia Salvatori
    I agree with Mr. Alfano.

    To the author of this article: I would like to know where you received training in journalism, so I can recommend to others to avoid that school.

    I was interested in the article about advertising, and as such decided to read it. I did not know that advertising, and someone's driving record went hand in hand. This is a shoddy piece of journalism. Perhaps the last two paragraphs could have been left out.

    Where is the editor of this news article as well. Who read this and allowed it to be published?

    Shame on "Law Times" for publishing this. I certainly will not be reading any more of your "journalism".
  • Frank Alfano
    From people who read this...
    KRM - Advertising and an HTA conviction...who knew they went hand in hand?!
    OS - Really???? It lead from this is how you are supposed to advertise, to you personally Frank! Talk about being targeted! That was the longest stretched-out causeway I have ever seen in journalism!

    I don't think I'm being targeted but just wonder what the HTA conviction has to do with advertising? Should I put on the website, I'm also a client?
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