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Rule 1.19 Sexual Relations with Clients Prohibited

(a) A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a current client of the lawyer.

(b) Paragraph (a) shall not apply if a consensual sexual relationship existed between the lawyer and the client before the legal representation commenced.

(c) A lawyer shall not require or demand sexual relations with a client incident to or as a condition of any professional representation.

(d) For purposes of this rule, "sexual relations" means:

(1) Sexual intercourse; or

(2) Any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person or causing such person to touch the sexual or other intimate parts of the lawyer for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of either party.

(e) For purposes of this rule, "lawyer" means any lawyer who assists in the representation of the client but does not include other lawyers in a firm who provide no such assistance.


[1] Rule 1.7, the general rule on conflict of interest, has always prohibited a lawyer from representing a client when the lawyer's ability competently to represent the client may be impaired by the lawyer's other personal or professional commitments. Under the general rule on conflicts and the rule on prohibited transactions (Rule 1.8), relationships with clients, whether personal or financial, that affect a lawyer's ability to exercise his or her independent professional judgment on behalf of a client are closely scrutinized. The rules on conflict of interest have always prohibited the representation of a client if a sexual relationship with the client presents a significant danger to the lawyer's ability to represent the client adequately. The present rule clarifies that a sexual relationship with a client is damaging to the client-lawyer relationship and creates an impermissible conflict of interest that cannot be ameliorated by the consent of the client.

Exploitation of the Lawyer's Fiduciary Position

[2] The relationship between a lawyer and client is a fiduciary relationship in which the lawyer occupies the highest position of trust and confidence. The relationship is also inherently unequal. The client comes to a lawyer with a problem and puts his or her faith in the lawyer's special knowledge, skills, and ability to solve the client's problem. The same factors that led the client to place his or her trust and reliance in the lawyer also have the potential to place the lawyer in a position of dominance and the client in a position of vulnerability.

[3] A sexual relationship between a lawyer and a client may involve unfair exploitation of the lawyer's fiduciary position. Because of the dependence that so often characterizes the attorney-client relationship, there is a significant possibility that a sexual relationship with a client resulted from the exploitation of the lawyer's dominant position and influence. Moreover, if a lawyer permits the otherwise benign and even recommended client reliance and trust to become the catalyst for a sexual relationship with a client, the lawyer violates one of the most basic ethical obligations; i.e., not to use the trust of the client to the client's disadvantage. This same principle underlies the rules prohibiting the use of client confidences to the disadvantage of the client and the rules that seek to ensure that lawyers do not take financial advantage of their clients. See Rules 1.6 and 1.8.

Impairment of the Ability to Represent the Client Competently

[4] A lawyer must maintain his or her ability to represent a client dispassionately and without impairment to the exercise of independent professional judgment on behalf of the client. The existence of a sexual relationship between lawyer and client, under the circumstances proscribed by this rule, presents a significant danger that the lawyer's ability to represent the client competently may be adversely affected because of the lawyer's emotional involvement. This emotional involvement has the potential to undercut the objective detachment that is demanded for adequate representation. A sexual relationship also creates the risk that the lawyer will be subject to a conflict of interest. For example, a lawyer who is sexually involved with his or her client risks becoming an adverse witness to his or her own client in a divorce action where there are issues of adultery and child custody to resolve. Finally, a blurred line between the professional and personal relationship may make it difficult to predict to what extent client confidences will be protected by the attorney-client privilege in the law of evidence since client confidences are protected by privilege only when they are imparted in the context of the client-lawyer relationship.

No Prejudice to Client

[5] The prohibition upon representing a client with whom a sexual relationship develops applies regardless of the absence of a showing of prejudice to the client and regardless of whether the relationship is consensual.

Prior Consensual Relationship

[6] Sexual relationships that predate the client-lawyer relationship are not prohibited. Issues relating to the exploitation of the fiduciary relationship and client dependency are not present when the sexual relationship exists prior to the commencement of the client-lawyer relationship. However, before proceeding with the representation in these circumstances, the lawyer should be confident that his or her ability to represent the client competently will not be impaired.

No Imputed Disqualification

[7] The other lawyers in a firm are not disqualified from representing a client with whom the lawyer has become intimate. The potential impairment of the lawyer's ability to exercise independent professional judgment on behalf of the client with whom he or she is having a sexual relationship is specific to that lawyer's representation of the client and is unlikely to affect the ability of other members of the firm to competently and dispassionately represent the client.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Adopted by the Supreme Court: July 24, 1997

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003

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