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Some lawyers take screwing their clients literally

By Legal Eagle

Sorry I haven’t been about very much. Short story: I am in Oxford and I do not presently have the resources to access anything except the visitor wireless network which generally bans (a) my work e-mail and (b) this site as deeply suspicious. Don’t ask. Hopefully to be rectified soon. But it is a red letter day. For reasons unknown the wireless network has decided to let me through. Hurrah!

A friend alerted me to the following extraordinary case from the US, reported by Newser:

If you feel the urge to have sex with your lawyer, make sure you’re off the clock first. Otherwise, you might find out that your lawyer is like this one in Minnesota—suspended after having an affair with a client and billing her for time they spent having sex, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

Thomas Lowe was representing the woman in a divorce, and at one point, while asking about her sexual relationship with her husband, suggested she sleep with him. She agreed, and he billed a number of their liaisons as meetings. When he eventually broke things off, the woman tried to kill herself, and, while recovering in the hospital, revealed the affair. Lowe “unconditionally admits” the whole thing, says the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. He isn’t eligible for reinstatement for 15 months.

Now, as emerged in the infamous Julia Gillard post, and as my colleague Linda Haller explains here, there is no law in Victoria stating that it is unethical to be in a sexual relationship with one’s client. The more I think about it, the more I think it should be, much as it is a breach of medical ethics for a doctor to sleep with a patient. This is not only to protect the client, but also to protect the lawyer from him or herself.

However, it is a definite breach of legal ethics rules to sleep with one’s client and bill the client for  that time as a ‘client meeting’. Presumably the lawyer did not disclose the basis of the costs he was charging in relation to his ‘services’ to the client, and it can hardly be said that the services were a legal service. That guy brings a whole new nuance to the word ‘solicitor’.

I always goggle when I see a lawyer do something like that. Did he sleep through the entire ethics class? How could he possibly think that was a legitimate thing to do?

28 Comments

  1. Moz noes nuffink
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    I wonder whether prostitution is lawful where those events took place? And if not, which bits of the transaction are not. Mostly, I admit, because convicting a solicitor of soliciting would be amusing.

  2. Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Wonderful, though possibly not helpful for this site and spam filters ;)

    Of course, the notion that it should be surprising that a lawyer should be both greedy and unethical might generate some guffaws from the gallery. (I should add that the lawyers of my acquaintance seem highly ethical.)

  3. Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Q: What do you call twenty lawyers chained together at the bottom of the Tiber?

    A: A good start.

    As you’ve probably guessed, this is a Roman joke about lawyers that turns up in a few places, along with others along similar lines. The smarmy, shyster lawyer has a long pedigree, even in those civilisations that took law and law-making seriously and thought it ought to be done properly.

    There was a period there where every other week a lawyer would be busted with his fingers in the trust accounts, or racing off the wealthy divorcée, or setting up companies to purchase erstwhile clients’ houses at an undervalue.

    The profession has been quite notably cleaned up, and it’s a process both journalism and banking need to go through if their respective images are ever to be burnished in the public mind. An incident like that in the OP is a reminder of just why there are 2000-year-old lawyer jokes.

  4. michael william lock
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    My then wife, decided to engage a solicitor to write a letter to a tenant (not ours) who was encroaching on part of our property.

    I suggested we could be just as effective doing it ourselves, but no she went ahead and did it her way. Nothing happened, after several weeks he sent a bill for $600.00, even though he had not composed the letter at that stage, she insisted it would fix the problem when he did write. The tenant was laughing at us, and I suspect the tenant was “screwing” the solicitor, eventually I phoned his office to ask why he had not sent the letter, he claimed his method was a very effective “legal tactic”, for my brief phone call he added $90.00 to the bill, I told my wife there was no way I would contribute to the bill and she stupidly paid it herself, I wanted to expose the slimy rat in court, I don’t have a lot of faith in our (their) courts but the publicity would have shown his unethical and dishonest behaviuor. I reported this matter to “The Queensland Law Society” their reply was basically – “so what” (I did not expect much else from them but they were advised). My then wife is now an ex-wife, this is not the only reason she is an ex-wife of course but it helped me make the decision, I completed my paper work for the separation, she engaged a clown who thought he could pull the wool over both of our eyes. I suggested she get her self a “legal hand book” then she might see just how many lies he was telling her, in the end she was able to discriminate between absolute rogues and simple petty thieves.

  5. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    there is no law in Victoria stating that it is unethical to be in a sexual relationship with one’s client. The more I think about it, the more I think it should be

    Why should a lawyer be precluded from selling a block of land or collecting a debt, just because he/she slept with his client? And what about acting for one’s spouse or partner? Divorce cases maybe – although I think a more solid case could be made against sleeping with either (or both) the judge or opposing counsel before the client.

    Absent prudery, I’m thinking there shouldn’t necessarily be a ‘blanket rule’.

  6. Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    @Skepti: That’s my second favourite lawyer joke. My preferred, which I’ve used here before (actually I got it from another commenter here) is:

    99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.

  7. bob
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    How about a response from the NSW Office of the Legal Services Commissioner, regarding a solicitor who had deceived, betrayed, and acted against the interests of a client, that it “is not an allegation of relative seriousness that it would be considered by the Tribunal to be professional misconduct as defined in the Act.”

  8. Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Worth checking other accounts … perhaps charging made legitimate business services for “stress relief” that the legal firm paid up, charged by the woman, and claimed against tax. The lawyer may have been put in the sin bin for being unethical without sufficient professional attention to detail.

  9. Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Tut-tut, you’re all focusing on the salacious but peripheral aspect of the case.

    Multi-tasking aside, all that matters is: Was he giving advice at the time?

  10. Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    This post is proving, ahem, ridiculously popular, but the link causing that popularity is not in evidence when I login as admin (this happens quite a lot, and is probably my fault).

    So perhaps I should invite our regulars to share their best lawyer (or other professional) jokes for the benefit of people who haven’t visited this blog before.

  11. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Be more interesting to read the jokes that lawyers tell amongst themselves. There’s umpty billion jokes on the web about dissatisfied/rooked clients and also St Peter – but very few from a lawyer’s perspective.

    Or is that a tell?.

  12. Adrien
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    However, it is a definite breach of legal ethics rules to sleep with one’s client and bill the client for that time as a ‘client meeting’.

    Was the item charged according to the hourly rate of a solicitor or, um, a solicitor?

  13. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    the problem with having a relationship with a client is that it tends to lead to a conflict of interest:

    LE, I can sort of accept what you say, but I would politely dispute that this is a problem unique to lawyers – as opposed to plumbers, architects, pool cleaners or bank tellers. Are you suggesting there is something somehow weakening of one’s moral resolve inherent to your profession? I just can’t see that.

    This is not so plain a problem as that of publicans, who are well known to exaggerate if given the slightest opportunity. For instance Steve reproduces that old 99% canard, when any accountant worth his salt will tell you the actual unaudited figure is much closer to 98.77.

    And I’m looking forward to the time when you have internet connectivity :)

  14. michael william lock
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    by-by for now!

  15. Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    For the record:

    Solicitors (lawyer type) charge roughly double the hourly rate of solicitors (flatbacker type)

  16. Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    LE:

    The original story is merely that “Lowe billed the woman for legal services on the dates of their sexual encounters, coding the time as meetings or drafting memos.”

    This doesn’t mean that there weren’t also meetings and memos drafted. And the whole thing came to light when he tried to extricate himself from the situation – which shows, I suppose the risks to the lawyer as well as to the client.

    I don’t think that the “rules” for lawyers and clients need to be the same as for doctors and patients. There are many considerations which are different. For example, legal consultations rarely include (as part of the legal consultation) a request that the client disrobe. Lawyers, unlike doctors, do not normally wield the key to the pharmaceutical cookie-jar.

    The fact that as a lawyer you might do a better job if you were more detached from the client does not amount to a conflict of interest, or at least not a conflict which adds much to the already inherent conflict between duty to the client and duty to the court or the system.

    There is a case coming up which, even if sexual acts are found to have taken place (which is not something I wish to prejudge or encourage anyone else to prejudge), could still raise questions of how the lawyer-client relationship affects questions of consent.

  17. Mel
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m with marcellous. I don’t think the doctor/patient relationship is anything like the lawyer/client relationship. I’m all for the nanny state but I don’t see why the state should protect from a relationship with the lawyer who does my property conveyancing or other such mundane tasks. LE’s point has more legs re emotional charged family court matters that could leave a client vulnerable to the advances of a lecherous lawyer but even then I’m not convinced that this is a matter that should concern Super Nanny.

  18. Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    SATP@18: Yes, but I think it says something about the possible standard of service that Lawyers have a standard billable unit of six minutes. ;-)

  19. kvd
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    DEM that’s why they’re sometimes referred to as ‘briefs’. Still, ya gotta admit that ten to the hour is fairly impressive.

  20. Posted January 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    DEM@21: Er….. are you saying that the 6-minute billable unit exists because that is ample time to dispense legal advice/service?

    (This is thrilling news! :D )

  21. Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    re the party of the first part who attempted suicide – a Denny Crane type advocate would have cleaned up her Screwyer with a damages suit for taking advantage of an emotionally vulnerable woman, or at the very least instructed her to not pay the account rendered.

  22. Truthseeker
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Lawyer … Ethics … Morality …

    Pick the odd one out …

  23. Yobbo
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    He obviously billed her for the time to cover up the affair. Presumably his colleagues knew they were together. To not send a bill for the time they spent together would be basically admitting that something that wasn’t work was going on.

  24. Posted January 28, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    My favourite lawyer story is an anecdote about my preferred litigation operator, a senior partner in a national firm.

    He sits on the desk, one foot on the floor and tie thrown back over the shoulder, and states that Australia has way too many laws, and were half of all laws to be eliminated we’d all be better off.

    He then extends the opinion and states that furthermore were half of all lawyers to be eliminated (“shoot ‘em” he says) we’d be even more better off.
    His codicil: “It really wouldn’t matter which half of the lawyers you shot”.

    ….. this runs through my mind whenever I see two or more lawyers at once.

    (I think he may be fed up with litigating some of the stupider laws.)

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