Lawyer Suspended for Coaching Client During Virtual Trial Through Chat Function

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An Arizona lawyer agreed to a two-month long suspension of his license after he was accused of coaching his client during a virtual trial by using the chat function on GoToMeeting, according to an article published by the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Journal.

 

The Situation

 

According to Law.com, the attorney was accused of messaging a client in a divorce proceeding during cross-examination by her estranged husband. The trial occurred in superior court Maricopa County, Arizona in September of 2020. The trial was conducted in a hybrid situation, where the judge was physically present in the courtroom and the other parties participated through GoToMeeting. The judge did not realize that the attorney was coaching his client until she had the opportunity to review the chat during cross-examination. According to the agreement for discipline by consent, the attorney was instructing the client to provide specific and substantive answers to questions being asked.

 

The judge instructed the attorney to stop, who agreed, but also claimed that the messages were the equivalent of him nodding or shaking his head in the courtroom while his client was being cross-examined in person.

 

Ethics Violations

 

The attorney conditionally admitted to violating several ethics rules including:

 

  • Fairness to opposing party;
  • Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice; and
  • Conduct involving fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

 

All attorneys are subject to a “code of ethics,” no matter the jurisdiction under which their legal practice falls. Professional ethics is a code that governs the conduct of attorneys engaged in the practice of law and those who are not but are licensed. In fact, all professionals (attorneys or not) who work in the legal field are held to a certain level of professional ethics and duty toward the client, opposing party, court, and others. The code of professional conduct trumps all other duties, particularly when there is an ethical conflict of interests.

 

Every state has the responsibility of setting their own ethics rules that govern attorney behavior, which lay out guidelines for its state bar associations and attorneys seeking clarification on ethical choices they are confronting.

 

The judge ordered the attorney to complete the license suspension, which begins March 1st, plus a two-year probationary period, according to the final judgment. The attorney’s ethics lawyer indicated to Law.com that although his client has admitted inappropriate conduct and taken responsibility, he is also a young lawyer and the incident happened at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was trying to figure out protocols with video proceedings.