Attorney-Client Sexual Relations

The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized sexual relations between attorneys and their clients as a significant ethical problem for the legal profession. The ABA's Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressed this issue in 1992 by issuing a formal opinion (no. 92- 364). Although the opinion acknowledged that the Model Rules of Professional Conduct do not specifically address the issue of attorney-client sex, it argued that an attorney's sexual relationship with a current client ''may involve unfair exploitation of the lawyer's fiduciary position and presents a significant danger that the lawyer's ability to represent the client adequately may be impaired, and that as a consequence the lawyer may violate both the Model Rules and the Model Code.''        
Becoming sexually intimate with a client, the opinion adds, undermines the ''objective detachment'' necessary for legal representation because ''[t]he roles of lover and lawyer are potentially conflicting ones.'' In addition, the opinion argued, attorney-client sex introduces a clear conflict of interest into a case, and it may also compromise attorney-client privilege, the principle that ensures the confidentiality of lawyer-client communication. Any secrets revealed to an attorney by a client outside of their legal relationship may not be protected by attorney-client privilege.         
Proponents of professional rules against attorney- client sexual contact argue that the legal profession should follow the example of other professions such as psychology and psychiatry, and create strict sanctions against sex with clients. Legal clients, these proponents say, are often vulnerable when dealing with attorneys, particularly in such areas of legal practice as family law.         
A lawyer who becomes sexually involved with a client in a divorce proceeding can take advantage of the client undergoing emotional trauma. That lawyer may hinder any attempts at reconciliation between a couple and complicate matters for any children involved. Sexual relationships between lawyer and client may also affect custody and child visitation decisions in the case. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, in its Standards of Conduct in Family Law Litigation, specifically prohibits attorney-client sex: ''An attorney should never have a sexual relationship with a client or opposing counsel during the time of the representation'' (§2.16 [1991]).      
Some attorneys object to such rules, arguing that they interfere with their First Amendment rights to freedom of association. They bristle at the notion of state bar associations regulating the private affairs of consenting adults. Nevertheless, attorneys are increasingly being disciplined for becoming sexually involved with clients, and state bar associations are drafting clearer and more stringent rules against attorney-client sexual contact. Wisconsin's Supreme Court, for example, in 1987, revoked the license of an attorney in part because he had sex with a client (In re Hallows, 136 Wis. 2d 72, 401 N.W.2d 557). The attorney, the court argued, was ''placing his interests above'' those of his client. In 1990 the same court for the first time suspended the license of a criminal lawyer who had sex with a client (In re Ridgeway, 158 Wis. 2d 452, 462 N.W.2d 671). Oregon and Minnesota have adopted outright bans on attorney-client sexual contact. Rule 1.8(k) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which became effective July 1, 1994, forbids attorney-client sexual contact during the conduct of a professional legal relationship. It allows exceptions to the rule only for relationships beginning before legal representation has commenced or after it has ended. In the case of clients that are organizations rather than individuals, an attorney may not have sexual contact with any member of the client organization directly overseeing the case.


FURTHER READINGS
Awad, Abed. 1998. ''Attorney-Client Sexual Relations.'' Journal of the Legal Profession 22 (annual): 131–91.
Kane, Andrew W., et al. 1992. ''Attorney Sexual Misconduct.'' American Journal of Family Law 6 (fall): 191–95.
Shirey, William K. 1999. ''Dealing with the Profession's ‘Dirty Little Secret': A Proposal for Regulating Attorney-Client Sexual Relations.'' Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 13 (fall): 131–60.
Struzzi, Melissa A. 1999. ''Sex behind the Bar: Should Attorney- Client Sexual Relations be Prohibited?'' Duquesne Law Review 37 (summer): 637–57.

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