THE BLOG

Scandalous Divorce Lawyers Who Sleep With Their Clients

01/31/2012 12:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2012

In "Sex and the City", Charlotte starts a romance with her attorney, Harry, while getting divorced from her husband, Tray. She finds true love in the arms of her attorney, and ultimately gets a fairy tale ending. In real life, however, fairy tale endings are few and far between. Far more common are disaster cases where romance between divorce attorneys and their clients results in calamity for both parties.

Consider the case of Raymond van Arnam, a New Mexico divorce attorney who, because of his affection for a client, became a little too zealous in pursuit of her interests. Van Arnam actually broke into the home of his client's estranged husband and invited two colleagues to join him in looting the residence. When the estranged husband returned home, Van Arnam rushed the man's car in a fit of rage, and was ultimately charged with fourth degree felony breaking and entering. Or consider the case of William Frick, a Missouri divorce attorney who became romantically involved with a client. When he discovered that his client was also seeing other men, Frick became jealous and started sending her threatening letters and vandalizing her property. The drama reached a climax when Frick was arrested for discharging a handgun at local security guards after he was caught spray painting her name on public property.

The vast majority of situations are nowhere near as tragic as van Arnam and Frick and nowhere near as romantic as Charlotte and Harry. The vast majority are somewhere in the middle, but even those situations pose a very real danger to the client in a divorce case. Normally, everything you say to your attorney is protected by attorney-client privilege. But that privilege only covers things you say to your attorney in his capacity as your attorney (ie, not pillow talk). If your former husband suspects that you're having an affair with your attorney, he can actually subpoena your attorney and put him on the witness stand to testify against you about the affair. Having your attorney testify about the intimate details of your private life would obviously be embarrassing, but it can also mean strategic suicide for your court case.

Nonetheless, this kind of thing happens every day. How common is it? Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but according to one nationwide survey of attorneys, 7% admitted to personally having a sexual relationship with one or more clients, and 32% admitted to having colleagues who carry on such affairs. It's so common today that there are actually law review articles with titles like "The Legal Profession's Dirty Little Secret"!

Up until 2002, not a single state had a law that explicitly prohibited attorneys from sleeping with their clients. And while most states do have such laws today, they are pretty watered down. Rule 1.8(j) of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility (the rules set by the American Bar Association for governing the conduct of attorneys) says that "A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced." In other words, you can take your lover as a client, but you can't take your client as a lover.

By comparison, the rules of professional ethics for doctors are far more stringent. The Hippocratic Oath, written about 2,500 years ago, forbids physicians from having sexual relations with any patients or even family members of patients: "Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons".

The dangers of getting sexually involved with a client/patient have been recognized in more serious terms by almost every other professional association. The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatry Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association, and even the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork all strictly forbid their members from having sexual relations with clients/patients under any circumstance. This permits one of two conclusions: either divorce attorneys have figured out some way to immunize themselves against the temptations of human sexuality, or they hold themselves to less stringent ethical standards than the masseuses and masseurs of America.

What do you think? Is it possible for a divorce attorney to give truly objective advice to someone with whom he's sharing a bed? Should divorce attorneys be permitted to represent their lovers at trial? And would you ever feel comfortable being represented by your lover?