'Nothing short of catastrophic'
Shawn Beaver was once considered one of Alberta's top legal minds. Then money started to go missing from clients' accounts.
On the day it all came crashing down, Shawn Beaver got up early and dressed with extra care. He wore polished shoes and a carefully chosen tie, taking care with the little things as though he were dressing for a wedding or a funeral, an added formality to steel himself for what was to come. From the outside, it seemed like he had it all. He was an elite criminal defence lawyer with his own successful firm, a respected legal mind who taught at the university and argued cases before the Supreme Court. His wife had been discharged from the hospital and was at home with their newborn baby. They'd been married one month. Their baby daughter, Aguilera, was one week old.
That morning had been coming for a long time. But although Mr. Beaver had been expecting it – knew it was inevitable even, and that he could not put it off any longer – its arrival was no less grim. He made a phone call from his office, then he left, walking east, toward the courthouse, alone. It was the same route he walked nearly every day to court, a walk he could do almost without looking. But this time he turned off and went into an office building instead, up 17 floors to see a long-time friend and mentor who would now become his lawyer. There, Mr. Beaver opened the door, and got ready for everything to fall apart.
There are certain admissions to be made from the start.
Mr. Beaver admits there was a deficiency of $180,000 in the trust fund of his law firm, Beaver Leebody and Associates. He admits that he was the only person with signing authority to the accounts, and that there was "commingling" of his personal funds with the firm's trust funds. He admits that, in some cases, money was taken for work not yet done, and that some client accounts were counted as paid before the funds were actually received. He admits that he wrongfully took proceeds of a house he owned with his ex-common-law wife, who has been severely disabled since a stroke in 2006.
There are certain other things that have been found but not admitted. These include that Mr. Beaver also took large sums of money, totalling $115,000, from the account of a severely disabled, homeless, alcoholic and drug-addicted client, for whom he had been given power of attorney. That, as the head of a Law Society of Alberta panel said at the conclusion of two weeks of evidence, Mr. Beaver took money from the firm to pay bills and personal debts, and used the money not only to prop up his firm, but also his lifestyle. That he violated a fundamental rule of the legal profession and took money entrusted to him and to lawyers in his firm that he was not entitled to take.
Next week, the panel of two lawyers and one non-lawyer will decide what kind of punishment Mr. Beaver should face, both for what has been admitted and for what has been found.
Mr. Beaver's lawyer says he should be allowed to practise law again – albeit with no access to client money. Lawyers for the Law Society say he should be disbarred. Some former friends and colleagues in the legal community believe he will be lucky not to go to jail.
And while the panel considers Mr. Beaver's fate, questions continue to surround a man who was once one of Alberta's most successful criminal defence lawyers, and a highly respected legal mind. Why did he do it? And, what will he do from here?
Shawn Beaver was five or six years old when he started telling people he wanted to be a lawyer. His mother would later say her middle son argued every point almost from the time he could talk, and whether it was an innate quality she saw or something she pushed him toward, the idea took hold.
His father was an accomplished electrical engineer who worked on the Canadarm and, later, the guidance system for the Patriot missile; his mother a nurse who monitored her son's accomplishments so closely she collected and kept his schoolwork from kindergarten. Things came easily to him, and he was never one to be modest about his intellectual abilities.
"I was expected to excel at school, but I enjoyed excelling at school," Mr. Beaver said, in a series of interviews with The Globe and Mail over recent months. "If I bothered at all, even to read the textbook or to do the assignments, I would get good marks. Basically if I can put my mind to it, I can excel or at least rise above the average in any subject. I'm good at absorbing, understanding and repeating information. If I did badly in a course, it was simply because I had no interest."
He got a bachelor's degree at McGill University with first-class honours, and was the gold-medal winner of his law-school class at the University of Alberta in 1993 – a distinction which carries so much weight in legal circles that it was mentioned respectfully more than once during his Law Society hearing 24 years later. Mr. Beaver would sometimes say the thing that made him proudest of the gold medal is that he got it and still never missed a party.
By May of 2015, it seemed like he had it all. He was, at 46, an accomplished lawyer who headed his own busy firm in downtown Edmonton, a hip space with exposed brick walls and modern furniture. It was in Beaver House, a historic building that happened to share his name, and which, when the space came open, seemed almost like fate. He worked with an impressive cadre of lawyers who believed deeply in the work and were arguing important cases at all levels of court. He taught criminal-trial procedure, evidence, and advanced criminal evidence, a class he developed, at the University of Alberta. He was social and generous, and some friends and colleagues thought of him as a legal genius. But at the same time, what he had built was on the brink of collapse.
In fact, there had been growing concern about Mr. Beaver within his firm for some time.
He'd been around the office far less, coming in late and some days not at all. He'd left his common-law wife (who had been a lawyer at the firm until her stroke) for another woman the previous summer, and his new girlfriend had become a fixture at the office, and at university and legal events.
There were questions about his behaviour and judgment, fuelled by his relationship with the much younger woman who went by the nickname Sugar Lips, and by their gushing social-media posts and unabashed displays of public affection.
There had been sexual behaviour between them in the office that some of his colleagues felt was inappropriate, and the tattoos he got for her – a large portrait of her on his arm, a series of words inked onto his chest – became common knowledge. From lovers' tiffs to lustful displays of affection, their romance played out openly at legal functions and on social media as the staid legal community looked on in wonder.
They married in April, 2015. A month later, their baby was born. There were serious complications at the end of the pregnancy, and with Mr. Beaver spending his days at the hospital, problems that had been simmering at the firm finally rose to a head.
On a Sunday in late May, 2015, the same day Mr. Beaver's wife and newborn were discharged from hospital, two lawyers from the firm met with his assistant, Jackie Bawol, to talk about a possible intervention. The lawyers were increasingly concerned about Mr. Beaver's behaviour and about the stress it appeared to be putting on Ms. Bawol, who was crying at work and seemed almost on the verge of a breakdown.
At a meeting in her backyard, Ms. Bawol revealed the problems were beyond what they imagined. Sobbing and nearly hysterical, she said cheques had been bouncing, and there wasn't enough money to pay the firm's wages and bills at the end of the month. She said Mr. Beaver had been taking money from the firm's trust fund for months. There was no money left.
That night, three lawyers from the firm called Mr. Beaver to a meeting in the office boardroom and angrily confronted him with the allegations he had drained the trust fund. He didn't deny it.
"There was no disputing it. He just sat there with this dead-eyed look in his eye," one of the lawyers, Brad Leebody, would later say, describing the confrontation at the Law Society hearing. "There was no remorse. No apology."
They gave Mr. Beaver until the next day at noon to report himself to the Law Society of Alberta.
This is the person who is the godfather to my children, and I just found out he robbed from me
The next morning, after another tense confrontation, Mr. Beaver walked to his lawyer's office and started preparing a letter. Lawyers from his firm were already speaking to Law Society officials when Mr. Beaver's letter arrived by fax. The lawyers broke the news to the rest of the firm later that day.
What followed were days of chaos and emotion. Everyone was out of work. There was no money, but the clients who had paid for services still needed representation. There was intense anger at Mr. Beaver, confusion and conflict over control of regular office functions, such as client phone calls. In a close-knit firm, where the seven lawyers and support staff were not only colleagues but friends, there were personal losses as well. Each one felt like a devastating betrayal.
Dave Lloyd, an articling student at the firm, had put just over $5,000 in the firm's trust as an education fund for the young children of his brother, who had died suddenly a short time earlier. That money was gone.
Lawyer Lee Roe, who had been unable to work for a lengthy period because of a heart transplant, had just won a payout in a civil case and was expecting $56,000 at the end of the week, which he had been counting on to repay loans and get back on his feet. That money was gone, too.
Mr. Leebody, who considered Mr. Beaver such a close friend and mentor that Mr. Beaver was godfather to his children, learned not only that the trust money was gone, but that Mr. Beaver had deceived him about aspects of a house sale, putting Mr. Leebody himself in breach of the Law Society.
A confrontation between the two men became so heated at one point that Mr. Leebody had to force himself to walk away.
"This is the person who is the godfather to my children, and I just found out he robbed from me," he would say later, describing the emotion of those days.
Hundreds of case files were prepared to be passed on to other lawyers, and another firm stepped in to pay the salaries of the secretaries and assistants, who hadn't been paid for the previous month and were now out of work. The lawyers, all also out of a job, continued representing the clients they could, while scrambling to find other places to work. By the end of the week, Mr. Beaver was suspended from practising law. The firm was quickly taken over by a custodian and closed.
After a lengthy investigation, the Law Society of Alberta charged Mr. Beaver with 12 counts related to misappropriating money, breaking accounting rules and breaching professional responsibilities. He also faced additional citations alleging he touched a legal assistant in a sexual manner without her consent and "failed to maintain a work environment free of sexual harassment."
In the 21 months since the trust-fund shortage and Mr. Beaver's suspension became public, speculation and rumours have continued to swirl around the legal community. Among the stories Mr. Beaver has heard about himself are that he took up to $7-million, and that he was a gambling addict or addicted to cocaine, all of which he strongly denies.
He says he agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail to "let people know that there's more to this story than just what they may have heard."
"I've been convicted by a group of people that apply the reasonable-doubt standard on a daily basis and would object to any hearsay in the proceeding, yet that is their entire reliance," he says.
For Mr. Beaver, what happened can be traced to a day in December, 2013, when his mother became suddenly, severely ill. She died three weeks later. He says he was completely unable to deal with her illness and death, and describes what followed as a "dark and blurry" period where he was severely depressed and couldn't cope with life. He says in this time, he lost control of his business, began drinking himself unconscious most nights, and wasn't able to make the decisions necessary to keep the firm afloat.
"Without remembering the day, I would remember the first time," he says. "I'm not sure I can tell you what the client was, even if I wanted to. I just remember feeling desperate and without time, that overwhelming feeling and desire to survive, if just one more day. That's what I remember about it."
All he could do, he says, was try to get through each day. He says he always intended to pay the money back.
He met Chantal Chmilar in early 2014, weeks after his mother's death. And though he says he was in the beginning of a deep depression, it was the start of a passionate love affair. When Mr. Beaver left his former common-law wife for the new relationship in August, angry separation proceedings ensued, which he says compounded his problems.
"I never understood depression, and had biases against it," he says. "But I can tell you it was a real thing for me."
But those on the outside saw a different, and maybe less sympathetic, picture.
There were romantic dates, travel, extravagant purchases. During the Law Society hearing, the panel heard that Mr. Beaver was taking personal draws from the firm every day at times, taking home at least $15,000 – and sometimes far more – every month. In the period of the trust shortages, there were large jewellery purchases at Tiffany's and charges from Holt Renfrew, an all-expense-paid trip for all of the firm's employees and Chantal to Mexico, a Caribbean cruise and a trip to Los Angeles he and Chantal took as a couple.
Doug McGillivray, one of the three people adjudicating the Law Society case, questioned whether the financial problems the firm faced could have been solved if Mr. Beaver took less money for himself, adding: "There's a lot of people that would think $15,000 a month before taxes is a pretty good earning."
Mr. Beaver responded that he had a number of expenses, including ones related to his previous relationships and children.
Mr. Beaver also attempted to purchase a $1.975-million house in early 2015, while already deeply in debt and shortly before the trust shortages were exposed. He put a $50,000 down payment on the house, half on a credit card.
"It's one of the many irrational decisions that I was making," Mr. Beaver said, when questioned about the house purchase during the Law Society hearing. He said he could not possibly have closed the deal.
Given his conduct, it is unimaginable that he would be permitted to practise law in Alberta ever again.
When the trust-fund issues came out, Mr. Beaver sat his new wife down and told her what he had done, and that he'd understand if she left him. They had been together just over a year at the time. She was 22, barely older than his daughters from his first marriage. They had a newborn baby. At their wedding a month earlier, they had read personal vows in which they said they would die without each other.
"He was like, 'I understand if you don't want to be with me. You don't have to. It's going to be really bad,'" Ms. Beaver says. She remembers telling him, "It doesn't matter if we lose everything and we're on the street. It's you who I loved, it's not everything else. You are the person I fell in love with.
"Everyone always says, 'Oh my God, you've been through so much with him,'" she says. "I'm a hopeless romantic. I believe that when you make those vows, through good and bad, through sickness and through health, you stick to it. You're there for them. No matter what comes your way, you get through it."
She sat through nearly all of his Law Society hearing, which ran over the course of two weeks. His father and two grown daughters were also there and, after her own testimony, his ex-common-law wife. Near the end there was a police officer sitting alone in the corner, taking notes.
Several lawyers from Mr. Beaver's firm declined to speak to The Globe and Mail, in some cases citing the ongoing Law Society proceedings and the potential for criminal charges. But the Law Society hearing exposed glimpses of the toll Mr. Beaver's actions have taken on them.
"This has been nothing short of catastrophic," Brad Leebody told the hearing, looking straight at Mr. Beaver for the first time during his testimony.
Ms. Bawol, who had been Mr. Beaver's assistant for 20 years and left her previous job to go with him when he started his own firm, sobbed at points during her testimony.
"I thought I was the luckiest person because I had worked for a person who was so smart, so ethical," she said. "I thought I was going to retire [from the firm]. I had it made." The panel called a break at one point for Ms. Bawol to compose herself.
Mr. Beaver's disabled client testified behind a screen, because of concerns about his vulnerability. "Do you know if anyone else is handling your money now?" Mr. Beaver's lawyer, Simon Renouf, asked. The man replied, "What money?"
By message, another former colleague described Mr. Beaver's actions as "indicative of someone entirely without remorse." "Given his conduct," the person wrote, "it is unimaginable that he would be permitted to practise law in Alberta ever again."
Although some of the losses are covered by insurance, payments didn't start for more than a year, and aren't guaranteed. Mr. Leebody described himself working for free for a year and a half, and said he was thrust into a situation so financially devastating that his wife had to take a job working the midnight shift at UPS. He said he also spent hours at his own Law Society hearing waiting to learn whether he would be disbarred for his role in Mr. Beaver's house sale.
"When I'm done here after today, I don't want to speak about it any more," he said, looking coldly across the room at his former friend and mentor. "I'm done."
Mr. Beaver, meanwhile, also feels betrayed – or at least abandoned – by many of the same people who were betrayed by him. He says he's seen people cross the street to avoid him, and many of his former friends and colleagues no longer return his calls or texts. Others, he says, support him quietly but aren't willing to come out publicly or be seen with him. In his view, his friends were only there for the good times, and he resents those he believes simply walked away.
"When my name was gold they wanted to be around me, and invite me to places and seat me prominently. When I'm going through a tough time, they're not interested in having me in the same room, for fear of association," he says. "That has disappointed me, but I've learned more about human nature, and ultimately you have to rely on yourself. That has to be your foundation, because take it from me: Your best friends, some of them will come through, and the rest will pretend they don't know you. And this is an amazing thing to me, because I thought I was a better judge of human character."
It's a feeling those who worked with Mr. Beaver have expressed in return. At the Law Society hearing, Mr. Leebody said he once believed Mr. Beaver "was the best of us, regardless what people said about his private life."
"I would suggest you are a very good judge of character," Mr. Beaver's lawyer, Mr. Renouf, said.
"I would disagree," Mr. Leebody replied.
"He had a very good mask."
The Beavers live in a new house in a subdivision on the edge of the city, within a tangle of crescents and closes and signs for new show homes. Windows along one wall look out over a man-made lake. The shelves are crowded with pictures of them together and souvenirs of their romance. The house is warm and busy with their young daughter Aguilera, and their other children: her five-year-old daughter Bentley, and his two grown daughters, who live with them part-time.
During the Law Society hearing, Mr. Beaver was asked if he owned or rented the house, but his lawyer objected, and Mr. Beaver didn't answer the question.
In the period since the trust shortages came out, Mr. Beaver says he was diagnosed with severe depression and has been treated with both medication and therapy by a team of doctors. He says his wife helped him confront the fact that he has an alcohol problem, and that he is in the early stages of recovery and going to Alcoholics Anonymous. He credits his wife and daughters for getting him through the past two years.
Ms. Beaver recently started classes herself, and has a 10-year plan to get a bachelor's degree and then go to law school. She says she'd like to be a defence lawyer and have her own firm, and says she wants to be "the next Shawn Beaver," and make her family proud.
The Law Society panel found Mr. Beaver guilty of seven financial, trust-fund and professional-responsibility offences, including "purposely and dishonestly" taking proceeds from the sale of the house he owned with his ex-common-law wife, failing to be candid with the Law Society, and misappropriating $115,000 from the disabled client for whom he held power of attorney.
"It is a sad irony that the funding arrangements put in place by Mr. Beaver, supposedly to protect [the client] from the financial predations of fellow street persons, was the very mechanism that allowed most of his money to be taken by the person he trusted most of all," the panel concluded, in a 27-page written decision.
The panel found Mr. Beaver not guilty of three citations, and two more were dropped by Law Society lawyers at the end of the hearing. The sexual-harassment and sexual-touching allegations are slated to be heard separately.
When my name was gold they wanted to be around me, and invite me to places and seat me prominently. When I'm going through a tough time, they're not interested in having me in the same room, for fear of association.
Next week, the Law Society panel will meet again to decide what happens next.
Mr. Beaver's lawyer, Mr. Renouf, is arguing that Mr. Beaver should be allowed to start working as a lawyer again, and says he would almost immediately begin paying back his debts. He says that Mr. Beaver has had little or no employment income for the past 21 months because of his suspension, and because the Law Society shut down his attempts to practise as a "legal consultant." He said a former partner of Mr. Beaver's is willing to hire him and oversee his work.
"In many respects it's a tragic story," Mr. Renouf said. "At least to the point where we're at right now."
Lawyers for the Law Society appeared visibly shocked at Mr. Renouf's application to have the suspension lifted, and are asking for disbarment. The majority of disbarments in Alberta over the past 15 years involve trust-fund, misappropriation or accounting issues. In one case, for less than $2,000.
The Law Society panel has already ruled that testimony and evidence gathered in the disciplinary hearing be sent to the Attorney-General for criminal investigation.
Mr. Beaver says he's spent the past months with his wife and his kids, volunteering, trying to slow down and deal with his health. He says he's working on plans in case he can never practise law again, though he declines to say exactly what those plans are. He says he's lucky, at 48, to have his "life correction" now, so he still has time to fix it.
He says despite it all, he's finally happy.
"I'm willing to start from the bottom and re-earn respect, or what have you," he says. "When I come back it will just be even better than I was before, and they'll have to respect me."
He is wearing a white dress shirt, slightly frayed around the collar, with the tattoo on his chest peeking through. It is one of the tattoos he got for Chantal, a necklace of ink bearing words of love. At that moment, there are only two words visible. They say, "My life."
Shawn Beaver faced the three people who would decide his future. Though it was not expected in the hearing, he stood, as if addressing court. He wore a grey suit and a violet tie.
Reading from a prepared statement, he apologized to his clients, to his ex-common-law wife, to the lawyers and staff at his firm, to his assistant, to the three lawyers he once considered to be his closest friends. He apologized to the legal profession overall, to his students, to his alma mater and to his former mentor, Alex Pringle, who died from cancer not long after the trust-fund shortages came to light. He apologized to the disabled client from whom he had taken $115,000, and who he said he thought of as a friend. He apologized to his wife, his children and his father.
For the first time during the hearing, Mr. Beaver cried.
The Law Society of Alberta panel had spent the day considering what penalty Mr. Beaver should face for violating one of the profession's most fundamental responsibilities, and whether there was a way to salvage a career that, as one member of the panel noted, could still have a lot to offer the community and legal profession.
There were letters of support, submissions from Mr. Beaver's lawyer that the transgressions were an isolated and exceptional lapse in a long and distinguished career.
But lawyers for the Law Society argued that Mr. Beaver's actions exposed significant flaws in his character and integrity, and had gone on for too long – and were too intentional – to allow him to practise law again.
The panel adjourned for an hour. It was evening when they returned.
Mr. Beaver sat at the table with his hands folded before him and his eyes downcast, and drew a deep breath. His wife, father and two grown daughters clasped each other's hands in a row of chairs behind him.
The head of the panel, Fred Fenwick, said Mr. Beaver's apology appeared to be genuine. But he also spoke of the vulnerability of some of those who lost money, and of Mr. Beaver's profound breach of trust.
He said Mr. Beaver had to be disbarred to protect the public and preserve the reputation of the legal profession, and to deter other lawyers who might be tempted to do the same. The panel also ordered that Mr. Beaver pay $120,000 for the cost of the investigation and hearing, and recommended the file be sent to the Attorney-General for criminal investigation.
Mr. Beaver's wife sobbed into her hands.
"It's been a difficult matter. It's been well-handled by all involved," Mr. Fenwick said in conclusion. "There's no sense in going on any further."
Mr. Beaver was calm as he led his family from the hearing room, talking to them in hushed tones about the decision, the future. His wife, father and daughters gathered close around him, crying and embracing as they walked out of the Law Society office to the elevators, then headed downstairs together.