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California Bar Association considers ban on sex between lawyers, clients

Attorney James Yoro in Bakersfield, Calif., reads from the California Bar Association ethics rules on Nov. 29, 2016, which currently allow for some sexual relationships with clients. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

It's been almost 30 years since the California Bar Association last revised its ethics rules, but the group is now in the midst of a major overhaul. Not all lawyers are happy with at least one proposal.

Nearly 70 items are being considered by a commission that was convened to review and revise parts of the code.

One of the most contentious items on the list has to do with sexual relationships between bar members and their clients.

Currently, it is not a violation of the California Bar ethics code for lawyers to have a sexual relationship with a client as long as it is consensual. Instances of coerced sex or quid-pro-quo sex are cause for discipline.

The commission has proposed going a step further, banning all sexual relationships, consensual or not.

The proposed rule says, "A lawyer shall not engage in sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the lawyer-client relationship commenced."

James Yoro, a partner at Chain, Cohn and Stiles and the vice president of the Kern County Bar Association, said refraining from sexual relationships with clients is common sense. Nevertheless, he said he understands, "It needs to be expressed very clearly, very explicitly so that there is no misunderstanding."

Yoro said he could not think of an incident within the past six years in which this was even an issue, but he said he plans to bring up the topic at an upcoming meeting.

The state bar has been accepting public comments on the proposed change, many of which have been against it.

Attorney Nicholas Grossman wrote the proposed rule was "unnecessary" and "just plain ridiculous." William Johnson wrote, "This proposed rule change is terrible and may violate constitutional rights to privacy, sexual relations, free association and marriage."

The Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office also submitted a comment in opposition to the ban, writing it "may be easier to enforce, but it is unrealistic in the real world."

Ethics lawyer James Ham submitted a dissent, writing that he agreed "sexual relations with a client is usually unwise" but argued there was "no empirical or even reliable anecdotal evidence that a complete ban on sexual relations is needed to protect the public or regulate the legal profession effectively."

According to an American Bar Association committee, as of May 2015, 17 states had adopted similar sex ban written by the ABA.

The California Bar will be making a final decision in March. It will then go to the California Supreme Court for approval.

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The Associated Press information was used in this report.

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