Inappropriate Relationships with Clients

1. Prohibitions and Consequences of Inappropriate Client Relationships

Request Update

“Inappropriate relationships with clients” immediately conjures up tawdry sexual entanglements between lawyers and their clients - although lawyers are far from the only persons to have inappropriate relationships with customers (and others) that can impair what should remain strictly arms-length interactions. “Sex with clients” is an especially weighted concern in the legal profession due to the fiduciary duty that lawyers owe to clients and the importance of professional distance from conflicted feelings and actions that detract from what is solely in the client’s best interest.

Additionally, there are some areas of law practice (e.g., family law) in which clients may be more vulnerable to unscrupulous “romantic overtures” from lawyers who are pursuing their own interest to the client’s detriment. There are a variety of instances where inappropriate relationships occur: from the infamous “couch fee” of the sleaziest lawyer to the allegedly mutual, but still completely inappropriate, entanglement of lawyers and clients in intimate affairs during the attorney-client relationship. That lawyers more than willingly throw themselves into these relationships is more than just unfortunate. It is unethical. And no amount of rationalization will change the fact that lawyers have the professional obligation to avoid improper relationships or forgo the attorney-client relationship altogether. There is no way to have both.

There has been some controversy in Texas about whether the State Bar of Texas should adopt a more specific disciplinary rule about sexual misconduct involving lawyers and their clients. This article does not address the merits of that proposition, except to note that the 2012 referendum defeat of a proposed disciplinary rule was not a clear indication of how Texas lawyers stood on the issue. The proposed disciplinary rule prohibiting sexual relationships between Texas lawyers and clients was included within a package of multiple, substantive disciplinary rule changes in a State Bar referendum, all of which were overwhelmingly defeated. There was criticism of the proposed “sex with clients” disciplinary rule for not being strong enough against this unethical practice, although there were some proponents who felt that something was better than nothing. No one should assume from the referendum defeat of that proposal that Texas lawyers have condoned what was and remains a fundamentally unethical act.