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Lawyer punished for student’s social media use

|Written By Anita Balakrishnan
Lawyer punished for student’s social media use
A lawyer must attend Law Society of Ontario programs after an articling student working for him made inappropriate social media postings. Photo: Sattalat Phukkum (Shutterstock)

Ontario’s Law Society Tribunal Hearing Division said a lawyer’s “unfamiliarity with social media appears” to have been a significant contributing factor in his failure to adequately supervise his articling student.

Toronto sole practitioner Marco Forte was reprimanded by the tribunal for misconduct in a Jan. 15 decision, Law Society of Ontario v. Forte, 2019 ONLSTH 9.

The decision said Forte must pay $3,500 in costs and must participate in law society programs such as Coach and Advisor Network and webcasts on advertising and solo and small firms.

Forte’s former articling student, Nadia Guo, had been the subject of several complaints to the law society, many involving social media, according to the decision from a panel of adjudicators including Peter Wardle, Marilyn Thain and Anne Vespry.

Complainants accused Guo of posting confidential information and “making derogatory comments about unnamed Justices of the Peace, Crown attorneys and clients” on Twitter, the decision said. The tribunal also wrote that Guo also posted on Twitter, Craigslist and Reddit that she was illegally arrested after she “got into a verbal altercation with counter staff, which led to her flipping her middle finger” and was “holding her phone trying to photograph the security officer’s badge.”

The decision listed several other issues with the student’s social media use, including posts about “how all court clerks should be fired and replaced by robots” and her personal website, “which at one point listed the names of more than 50 ‘Bad Cops,’ two ‘Bad Crowns’ and two ‘Bad Judges.’”

Guo was Forte’s first articling student, and he allowed her to create a Twitter account for his firm, which she allegedly tweeted from without his knowledge. Forte, who did not have a previous disciplinary history, did order Guo to take down her Twitter account, the decision said, but the student opened another account. He declined to comment when contacted by Law Times.

“He never reviewed Ms. Guo’s personal website, which contained inflammatory and inaccurate material as well as information about client cases that had been posted without his consent. He allowed Ms. Guo to create a Twitter account for his firm, but he never reviewed it at any time,” the decision said. Ultimately, Guo, who started her articles in June 2015, was terminated by Forte in February 2016.

“In fairness to the Lawyer, this was an extremely difficult situation and one that could not have been anticipated,” the panel wrote. “The Lawyer spent a significant amount of time and effort in attempting to coach Ms. Guo about professionalism and civility . . . He also somewhat naively trusted in her assurances that things would change.” In a statement to Law Times, Guo says she regrets Forte “had to be disciplined for my own expressions, which I take sole responsibility for.”

Lorraine Fleck of Fleck Innovation Law in Toronto says the decision provides lessons for lawyers.

“Regardless of whether it’s an articling student or a member of your firm’s marketing team or another member of the firm, you have to watch and see how those you are responsible for supervising are using the firm’s social media [accounts],” says Fleck.

  • More Than Enough Blame to Go Around

    John A. Cyr
    And we wonder why there are fewer and fewer articling positions available. This decision can only serve to accelerate the trend. Benchers' revisions of the articling process need to include vetting for a candidate's readiness to article so that behaviour exhibited by this candidate gets flagged before the candidate has an opportunity even to apply for a position. A review of a candidate's social media activity should be part of such a vetting but such a review requires resources and skills few in the bar would be able, or even want to muster. It would certainly be a prohibitive requirement for taking on the role of articling principal. This student is not likely to have begun her incivility at the commencement of her articles. Did she really manage to get through law school with no one raising a flag that, at very least, there were lessons yet to be learned? There are others to bear blame here, beyond the hapless articling principal. At very least payment on the order for costs should waived as an admission that this student should never have had the opportunity to pursue articles. The fact that someone as unsuitable as she did have that opportunity does not lie at the feet of the articling principal.

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