Do You Love Your Divorce Lawyer?

Your divorce lawyer is a source of comfort, knowledge, and strength in a time of crisis. He or she may seem loving, caring, competent, and confident. You may fall in love with the lawyer working with you in your divorce. If you do, it will be a romance that is fundamentally flawed.

I have absolutely no empirical research to support what I say here. Pick up any listing of lawyers disciplined for ethical violations, and you’ll see one or two instances of discipline for lawyers’ sexual relations with their clients. And when you look behind the notes to the actual cases, divorce lawyers are much more likely to be disciplined in this way than other lawyers. But when it comes down to it, I can’t quote you statistics, at least not yet.

All I have is my intuition. My intuition scares me to death.

Here’s my thinking. I work as a volunteer in my church denomination with sexual abuse in the ministerial relationship. As part of our training of ministers, we stress the power that ministers have in relationship to the congregants God calls them to serve. We know that some ministers abuse that power, either as wanderers or predators, by engaging in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with their congregants.

I see all the signs of that same power with divorce lawyers as well. The fundamental difference between divorce lawyers and ministers is that divorce lawyers in general don’t have a clue about the risks I’m describing.

When I raise this issue with other lawyers, I usually get some argument about how the client can decide to leave the lawyer at any time; And technically, that’s true. In a simplistic sense, the client does have a choice whether to continue using the lawyer.

The problem is that often the client doesn’t have a choice. She’s paid a sizable retainer, and she feels locked in. It was excruciatingly painful bearing her soul to this lawyer, and she can’t bear the thought of spilling her guts onto yet another lawyer’s conference room table. No, she will stay and make the best of it.

Lawyers don’t realize the power they have in relation to their clients. That makes it likely they will abuse that power.

What do I mean by power? Let’s take a look at what makes divorce lawyers powerful and what makes their clients vulnerable. I’m not saying that every divorce lawyer/client relationship has these elements, but most of them are present in most relationships:

Divorce Lawyers Divorcing Clients
Highly educated Less education
Secure income Income often threatened
Secure net worth Often plagued by crushing debts
Large physical size Sometimes small in stature
Predominantly male Often female
Predominantly white Often a racial minority
Full access to support resources Limited access to resources
Meeting in familiar surroundings Surroundings unfamiliar
Familiar with issues and process Bewildered by divorce issues and process

But by far the most striking power difference lies in the crisis you’re going through when you’re dealing with divorce. If you’re going through divorce and you don’t realize you’re in crisis, you just don’t understand. Check out Divorce Stinks and Why does it hurt so much? You are in crisis. You’re vulnerable. The typical lawyer is not in crisis. He or she has been through this before. Many times. They’re calm. They’re collected. They’re in charge.

People like me have power in relation to you. We can abuse you. Don’t let us.

The romantic feelings you may have for your lawyer cannot be real. Here’s why.

You may decide that the sexual relationship you dream of having, or are having, with your lawyer is a matter of sex between two consenting adults. But what is consent? Consent requires both the right to say no and the power to say no. It requires roughly equal power. Your power is nowhere near that of your lawyer. Because of this, there is no way you can give meaningful consent to a sexual relationship with your lawyer.

Any sexual relationship between a divorce lawyer and his or her client is not love. It is not “just an affair.” It is not “time out from the stress of the case.” It is not “relaxing together.” It is not the “real love you always needed.”

Any sexual relationship between a divorce lawyer and his or her client is, purely and simply, sexual abuse. The lawyer is the abuser and the client is the victim.

In a sense, you’re probably the wrong audience for what I say here. The little I know about DivorceInfo readers indicates that you tend to be unusually well-informed, insightful, and self-reliant. You’re probably less vulnerable than some other divorcing clients to sexual abuse at the hands of your lawyer. But everyone going through divorce is vulnerable. Anyone going through divorce is a potential victim. Even you can be sexually abused by your lawyer.

I talk about this issue with lawyers, but they just don’t get it. Even when bar associations get involved in this issue (and they do), they tend to look at it as a problem only because it “clouds the independent judgment of the attorney.” That may be a problem, but it seems a small problem to me compared with the very real harm caused by sexual abuse.

Please don’t hear me to say that this is all about malicious lawyers fiendishly planning their next sexual conquest. Although I am confident that some divorce lawyers are sexual predators, many more are simply naive. They don’t realize the impact of the power differential and the way it can poison an attorney/client relationship.

My friend Sue Talia puts it this way:

We all need to be reminded from time to time that that client with whom we connect so well may be having fantasies and expectations we couldn’t imagine . . . Lots of lawyers aren’t sexual predators, but their very naiveté might encourage the unsuspecting client to have expectations which, though never acted on, cloud the client’s judgment and cause them to accept a bad settlement (or other advice they otherwise wouldn’t follow) because they want the lawyer’s approval. I’ve seen it happen, without bad motives or misbehavior on either side.

Lawyers can’t understand how much power they have in relation to their clients, and how vulnerable their clients are to being abused. The only way I know to deal with it is to tell you about it. If you don’t need this page, maybe you know somebody who does.

Print it. Share it with them. Please.