Ethics and Intimate Relations with a Client

Author: Attorney Chris Meyer

Lawyers are governed by rules of ethics which describe their conduct and try to insure, among other things, that a client will receive quality independent judgment from their lawyer free from any conflict.  In Virginia, these rules are called the “Rules of Professional Conduct” and they are administered and enforced by the Virginia State Bar.  All lawyers licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia are required to belong to the Virginia State Bar.  This organization disciplines lawyers who violate the Rules, and the penalties for violation can include revocation of the attorney’s license to practice law.  Not only does the Virginia State Bar administer the Rules, but it also provides guidance for lawyers in areas where the Rules may be unclear.The Virginia State Bar issues Legal Ethics Opinions (LEOs) which describe particular situations and warn lawyers how they might get into trouble with certain conduct.  One of these areas the Bar has addressed lately is the situation where a lawyer finds that he or she is inclined to enter into an intimate consensual romantic relationship with an existing client.  Does this violate the Rules of Professional Conduct?

The Virginia State Bar in a recent LEO discussed the problems involved in this type of conduct, and indicate that often the answer is yes — but not always.[1] One of the reasons is that the lawyer needs to be able to give the client independent professional advice uncluttered by emotion.  This may be impossible when the relationship is burdened with emotions of a romantic relationship.  For example, suppose the lawyer receives a written ruling from the Judge in the case which is adverse to the client’s position.  If the lawyer reveals this ruling to the client, as he or she ethically must, might it not cause disappointment on the client’s behalf and change the nature of the personal relationship including the possibility of the client withdrawing from the relationship entirely?  If the lawyer considers this and withholds the information the lawyer’s conflict has caused the lawyer to unethically keep the client from being properly informed. The American Bar Association in Formal Opinion 92-364 (1992) noted that ” [t]he roles of lawyer and lover are potentially conflicting ones as the emotional involvement that is fostered by a sexual relationship has the potential to undercut the objective detachment that is often demanded for adequate representation.”

There are several obvious situations in which a lawyer may not become involved sexually with a client.  One is that a lawyer is forbidden to sell his legal services in return for sexual favors.  Another is that a lawyer in domestic relations practice may find that the relationship with his client becomes an exhibit in the trial and he may be forced to withdraw from the representation and indeed testify against his former client.

Not all intimate relationships with a client are forbidden.  Longstanding relationships which pre-existed the attorney-client relationship may not suffer the ethical challenges described.  Also short-term legal relationships such as representation in a traffic court case or a single real estate closing may not suffer from the conflicts that other areas of legal practice might entail.  However, in order to avoid any problems, lawyers are cautioned to avoid any entanglements that might damage their independent judgment when representing a client.

About the Author: Chris Meyer is a Richmond injury attorney with Allen & Allen. He has developed a reputation on the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct and annually lectures on Virginia Legal Ethics. He also lectures regularly on recent decisions of the Virginia Supreme court.

[1] See Legal Ethics Opinion 1853 (December 29, 2009) for further details, located at .