I still remember attending my first day of ethics class at the University of Pittsburgh, and the professor, the Honorable Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr., of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, posed the following question to the class, "Can you have sex with a client?" While almost everyone presumed that having a sexual relationship with a client would not be the best idea, the judge instructed us to review the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, which are the ethical rules that govern the actions of attorneys, to find the precise answer to his question.
What is "Sexual Relations"?
Rule 1.8(j) prohibits a lawyer from having "sexual relations with a client unless a consensual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced." The phrase "sexual relations" is not expressly defined in the rules, but I suspect that the Disciplinary Board may apply a broader definition of the phrase "sexual relations" than Bill Clinton did when he denied having sexual relations with many women.
Lawyer Bills Client for Sex Services
Similar to Pennsylvania, Minnesota also has an ethical rule that prohibits attorneys from having a sexual relationship with a client. A married Minnesota lawyer recently violated his ethical obligations in having a seven-month affair with a client, and the lawyer sent the client bills for the sex time that was coded on the invoices as "meetings and drafting memos." The affair ended when the lawyer's wife discovered the tryst, at which point the lawyer sent a final bill for services rendered and withdrew as the attorney of record.
The relationship was consensual and thereby did not violate any criminal law, but the violation of ethical rules does impact a lawyer's ability to remain professionally licensed. In this case, the violation of the ethical rule regarding sex with clients caused the disciplinary board in Minnesota to revoke the lawyer's license for 15 months.
Checking a Lawyer's Disciplinary History
When a person is hiring a lawyer, I highly recommend that a person investigates the lawyer's prior disciplinary history as well as reading reviews from other attorneys and former clients. In Pennsylvania, a lawyer's disciplinary history can be viewed on the disciplinary board's website.
Aside from considering an attorney's disciplinary record, a prospective client should also read reviews for the attorney that are posted by former clients and attorneys. Many websites such as Avvo and Martindale-Hubble are created to give clients and lawyers a forum to review lawyers and grade the quality of legal services provided by the lawyer. I would caution considering reviews that are posted on a lawyer's website unless the reviews are actually found on lawyer review websites. I suspect that one-sentence reviews that are found on some attorneys' websites are written by the attorneys themselves.
I have been a State College criminal defense attorney since 2004, so, in that time, I have represented hundreds of clients. Many of my former clients have posted positive reviews, and, while I do post client testimonials on my website, every review is actually taken from an attorney review website and is more substantive than a cheesey one-liner. Many attorneys have nice websites, mention years of experience in the business, and can mention some representation success stories, but a better indicator of quality can be found by reviewing what prior clients think of the attorney.