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Work Ethic

Strange legal bedfellows

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

Q: I handle ethics and conflicts for our law firm. How do I deal with lawyers at my firm who become romantically involved with a person on the opposite side of our deals?

A: One of the most important duties lawyers owe their clients is to advocate zealously for the client’s interests. It’s hard to do this when you have competing loyalties on the other side of the aisle (or business deal or court case). At a bare minimum, it’s a situation that gives the appearance of being rife with conflicts.

“The more I think about this, the worse it gets,” said Carl E Schneider, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Law and Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan’s law school, who studies legal ethics. “It’s palpably reckless.”

The first thing the firm should do, Schneider said, is to get the love-struck lawyer off the team that works for the client.

The logical next step: think about whether the attorney should remain at the firm, given his questionable judgment. The ethical issue is the same whether the attorney in question is a partner or a junior associate, Schneider said.

As the person in charge of ethics at this law firm, you should follow the procedures in place for attorney wrong-doing. There should be a committee that deals with these sorts of issues; if not, tell the managing partner of the firm. The partners may decide to start disciplinary proceedings against the attorney.

Next, determine the responsibility the firm has to tell others about the situation. For certain, the other lawyers on the firm’s deal team need to know, Schneider said. It is only fair for them to be informed of a situation that may have compromised their hard work.

Does anyone else need to know? That depends on the rules for lawyers in the state where the relationship occurred. “Better to go to (the client) proactively,” Schneider suggested.Don’t expect that conversation to go well.

There is a bit of good news, however. The client isn’t likely to ditch your law firm, because it’s usually too complicated to swap in a new firm in the middle of a big deal, said Schneider.

The biggest danger to the client — and your firm — is that information about the case or deal may have been passed to the opposing side, even inadvertently. If the case is before a judge, your firm may have to disclose the issue to the judge and await the consequences.

How to avoid this situation in the future? Consider stepping up ethics and conflicts training for attorneys at your firm, since the message clearly isn’t getting through.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.