In order to become a member of the legal profession, a law graduate must “article” with a practicing lawyer and study and write the bar exam. At large firms it is not unusual to have a dozen or two articling students, but for a sole practitioner it can be an onerous responsibility to supervise a lawyer-to-be.
In a recent Ontario case, 10-year criminal lawyer, Marco Forte, hired his first articling student, Nadia Guo, but was unprepared for the challenges she brought to his practice. Mr. Forte was also a social media novice, who found himself embroiled in controversy with Ms. Guo’s social media habits.
Despite his best efforts, he failed to adequately supervise Ms. Guo, who got off to a bad start when she flipped her middle finger at staff at Toronto’s Superior Court intake counter during a verbal altercation. She was escorted off the premises by court house security, but returned nonetheless and was arrested for her behaviour, although never charged.
She then posted messages on Twitter, Craigslist, and Reddit identifying herself as an articling student at Mr. Forte’s law firm and complaining of her illegal arrest.
She also posted questions and comments on the Criminal Lawyer’s Association listserve, which other members found disparaging and offensive. Some of her posts breached client confidentiality and eventually her privileges were suspended.
After her suspension from the listserve she assured Mr. Forte that she would refrain from posting inappropriate material but her promises were short-lived, as she began posting derogatory comments on Twitter about unnamed Justices of the Peace, Crown Attorneys, and clients from Mr. Forte’s practice.
Further interventions by Mr. Forte fell on deaf ears, as a month or so later she posted a series of tweets criticizing the “inefficient” court system, suggesting that court clerks should be abolished as “futile and outdated” and replaced by robots. She later apologized and deleted her twitter account, but her offensive activities only carried on as she used Mr. Forte’s twitter account, unbeknownst to him. Not to mention her website, linked to her principal’s, where she identified 50 “Bad Cops”, “Bad Crown Counsel” and “Bad Judges”
She also, at Mr. Forte’s direction, put together a firm website which, contrary to Law Society policy, suggested she was a part of the “team” at his firm, with no suggestion that she was an articling student. Later it became apparent that Mr. Forte had not reviewed or approved of the website content because he had been too busy to look at it. Other comments on the website could be construed as disparaging or misleading to third parties.
Eight months into her articles Ms. Guo was finally fired and Mr. Forte was facing a disciplinary hearing for failing to supervise his student and permitting advertising that breached Law Society policy.
The Law Society of Ontario found that Mr. Forte failed to properly supervise Ms. Guo, despite many conversations he had with her regarding her intemperate and uncivil communications. He had also arranged for her to meet with a number of female lawyers but their influence was also ineffective.
When he ordered her to take down her Twitter account, she did so, but shortly thereafter opened a new account, and later simply used the firm twitter account, an account that Mr. Forte failed to monitor.
A significant factor was Mr. Forte’s lack of familiarity with social media. The Law Society also remarked that he seemed to believe that what she wrote in her personal capacity was not his concern. He failed to recognize that what she did, reflected on him and his practice.
He was found to have professionally misconducted himself but with excellent character references and because he had no prior discipline history he was reprimanded, ordered to complete a coaching program and take two continuing education programs. He was also ordered to pay costs of $3,500.00.
Unfortunately, his well-intentioned efforts to provide legal training for a student backfired and cost him professionally.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang