Two former disciplinary counsels now practicing together

Ohio State Bar Association

The Supreme Court of Ohio’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel handles allegations of misconduct against lawyers and judges. Only five people have held the position of disciplinary counsel in Ohio’s history. Two of them—Jonathan Coughlan and Geoffrey Stern—together totaling more than 20 years as disciplinary counsel, now practice at the same law firm.

Geoff Stern and Jon CoughlanFrom the “other side of the desk” at Kegler, Brown, Hill + Ritter’s Columbus office, Coughlan and Stern lead the firm’s Ethics + Professional Responsibility practice area and provide advice on ethical issues to assist lawyers and judges facing grievances. Their work involves a wide range of ethical issues that lawyers and judges may encounter, including motions to disqualify and various conflicts of interest.

Coughlan has spent the majority of his career in the public sector. He was a bureau chief for the Erie County District Attorney for 10 years before becoming disciplinary counsel, a position he held for 16 years, the longest ever in Ohio.

Following his tenure as disciplinary counsel, it was Kegler Brown’s existing team that led Coughlan to join the firm in early 2014. He looked forward to practicing with Stern, his fellow disciplinary counsel alum, in Kegler Brown’s ethics and malpractice area.

Stern, who has been with Kegler Brown since 1997, is the only lawyer to have served as both disciplinary counsel of the Supreme Court of Ohio and as chair of the Ohio State Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Conduct. A private practitioner for a number of years, it was his work on both the ethics committees of the Columbus Bar Association and the Ohio State Bar Association that sparked his interest in ethics. He says he “fell into” the disciplinary counsel position, his first role in the public sector.

“Reputation is a key thing,” says Coughlan. Stern agrees that, whether inside or outside the scope of the practice, “a lawyer’s reputation could be everything.” Reputation is something both men have carefully considered in their professional practices. Because of their backgrounds, Stern and Coughlan are frequently asked to serve as expert witnesses regarding lawyers’ ethical standards. Stern, who has served as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of matters, including appearances as an attorney in nearly 200 Supreme Court of Ohio cases, makes it a point to be a witness for both plaintiffs and defendants. He explains, “It’s unfortunate if an expert witness hears, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a plaintiff’s expert.’”

Jon Coughlan and Geoff SternStern and Coughlan agree that when they served in the disciplinary counsel role as well as now, neglect was and is the most frequent violation that required investigation. Coughlan attributes the prevalence of neglect claims to miscommunication, estimating that such miscommunication is at the core of 60 percent of complaints against lawyers.

Coughlan, currently an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, suggests that law students often focus on grades and forget the “human component” of the law. He believes law schools should do a better job of helping future lawyers understand “pitfalls.” Coughlan says, “Law school teaches you the law. It does not teach you how to run a firm, deal with a client or communicate with others.” He calls for more preventative consultation, saying, “With the emphasis on communication, there would be fewer infractions.” Stern, recognized by the Ohio State Bar Association for service to the profession through continuing legal education lectures on ethics and professionalism, agrees. He says he recalls hearing only a one-hour lecture on ethics in law school.

Stern and Coughlan also cited substance abuse as a recurring factor in lawyer misconduct investigations. Stern estimates that substance abuse is a factor in approximately 18 percent of cases, noting, “We could look at a case and be told some things about a lawyer and have a well-grounded hypothesis that this lawyer has a substance abuse problem.”

Now, because increasing numbers of lawyers seek help for substance abuse problems, the Supreme Court of Ohio takes recovery steps into account before disciplining a lawyer. Funded by the Court and the Ohio State Bar Association, the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program helps Ohio’s judges, attorneys and law students get treatment and seek recovery for substance abuse, chemical dependency, addiction and mental health issues.

Both Coughlan and Stern believe education is the key to preventing lawyer error and applaud the Supreme Court’s requirement that each licensed attorney receive 2.5 hours of “professional conduct” instruction biennially. As private practitioners, Stern and Coughlan are advocates for taking that instruction seriously and finding preemptive methods for preventing disciplinary problems. Both are mindful of the need to pay attention to professional conduct in their firm. They routinely confer with each other, asking, “Does our position comport solidly with professional standards?”

Coughlan offers this advice: “Knowing how to develop relationships is what law students and young lawyers need to focus on.” In a field where miscommunication is a predominant issue, these relations will aid in a lawyer’s ability to clearly correspond with clients. Stern and Coughlan will continue their work with lawyers and judges who face grievance charges, but look forward to providing insight and education to help legal professionals avoid such charges in the first place. To that end, the Kegler firm’s professional responsibility team consists of seven attorneys involved in ethics consultation, disciplinary representation, expert services and attorney admission cases. Ohio’s two former disciplinary counsels are enthusiastic, “It’s great to be part of such a team.”