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New ethics rules proposed for California lawyers

While many buy into the stereotype that lawyers are generally unethical, lawyers are bound by ethical rules that if broken, can have severe consequences. In California, lawyers must adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct, written by the State Bar of California. The scope of the Rules runs a wide gamut of topics and duties, including regulating intimate relationships between lawyers and clients. The State Bar is currently reviewing these rules in preparation for revisions, including a proposed change to ban sexual relationships between lawyers and clients - a proposal that has left some lawyers unhappy.

Under current California rules, a lawyer may not coerce a client into a sexual relationship or exchange sex for legal representation. This is a looser standard than provided by the American Bar Association's Model Rules (which govern in the other 49 states) which bars a sexual relationship between a lawyer and client unless the sexual relationship preexisted the professional relationship. According to the ABA, 17 states have already adopted blanket sex bans in addition to the ABA Model Rules.

California's ethics rules have not been fully revised since 1987. The proposed ban is part of a complete overhaul that aims to amend 70 existing rules. Lawyers who violate the Rules of Professional Conduct are subject to a variety of disciplinary action including sanctions and suspension or even loss of their legal license. While a blanket ban is restrictive, the proposed California rule will contain an exception (similar to the existing ABA rule) for when the sexual relationship preceded the attorney-client relationship.

Those who support the ban argue that a lawyer-client relationship is always unequal so any type of sexual relationship has the potential to be coercive. Those against argue that the ban is a gross invasion of privacy. The State Bar's Board of Trustees approved a public comment period on the proposed sex ban rule earlier this month, and the Rules Commission has until March 2017 to get approval for the proposed rules and send them to the California Supreme Court, who holds the final approval power.

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