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After the Bar

Professional Development

What to Think about before Dating a Law Firm Colleague

Samuel Dangremond

What to Think about before Dating a Law Firm Colleague
Diamond Dogs via iStock

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As lawyers return to their offices following the remote structure of work during the pandemic, one issue is likely to arise: how to navigate an office romance. After all, relationships and marriages have begun within law firm walls, including the famous union of Barack and Michelle Obama (she was assigned as his mentor when he was a summer associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago in 1989).

Review the Firm’s Policy

Many employers—not just law firms—have policies that govern workplace relationships. Check to see what your firm’s rules are. “When I started practicing in the 1980s, it was actively discouraged,” says one partner at a New York law firm. Today, many firms recognize the reality that people meet in the workplace and fall in love. “Pre-pandemic, young lawyers spent a lot of time in the office, and they often met their partners there,” the partner says.

“You can have a policy that says, ‘Do not date in the workplace; we do not allow it,’ but if you did that, you’d have people stumbling into relationships,” the partner says. A better approach, which many firms have adopted, is to develop policies to prevent an imbalance of power in relationships between colleagues.

Some firms strictly prohibit supervisor-subordinate relationships, for example. Some require that attorneys in a relationship with a colleague report the relationship to HR. “The idea is that if people are honest about it and report it, we can think it through,” the partner says. “Each situation presents a different set of facts, but it’s always a question of how do we keep everyone safe, how do we protect the people involved, and how do we protect the firm?”

Someone Might Have to Leave

Ronda Muir, founder and principal of Law People Management, LLC, a firm that provides advice to law firms on people management issues, says she knows of one firm where the partner must leave if there is an associate/partner sexual relationship.

At one of Muir’s client’s firms, the firm leadership believed that the morale problem within the office was because of compensation. “After a thorough review, it was apparent that the morale problem was because one of the senior partners had a romantic connection in the firm to whom he funneled all the best matters. “He thought, ‘no one knew,’ which is, by the way, never the case, as it was known throughout the firm,” Muir says.

Be Professional, Not Persistent

“What one lawyer may think is flirtation, another lawyer may think is harassment,” Muir says.

That’s especially relevant in the context of one lawyer asking another one out on a date. Muir, who specializes in lawyer personalities, says that, on average, lawyers’ biggest emotional intelligence skill deficit is recognizing cues. “So, if you have a bunch of people in an office who can’t read the cues of other people, you’re sort of asking for trouble.”

Some general rules for associates to follow are only to ask out fellow associates, only ask once, and respect the answer if they say they are busy or not interested. That approach may also prevent you from an accusation of violating a Rule of Professional Conduct. Muir notes that in June 2022, the New York judiciary adopted one of the broadest disciplinary rules in the country prohibiting discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, in the practice of law. New York Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g), which is an adaptation of the same provision of the ABA Model Code of Professional Conduct, increases the likelihood of having a disciplinary action brought against someone for reasons of harassment/discrimination and includes lawyers interacting with anyone involved in their practice of law.

What Lawyers Think of Workplace Relationships

A 2020 survey by International’s U.K. arm, Legal Week, found that lawyers were split on how firms should handle workplace relationships. The survey, which was conducted in the wake of revelations associated with the #MeToo movement, found that more than half of the 105 respondents, most of whom were based in the UK, had been in relationships with people at work at some point in their life. While 43 percent of the respondents favored a policy about reporting relationships to management, 30 percent said that as long as employees were happy, relationships were none of their firm’s business, and management should only get involved if things went wrong.

There is, however, no consensus on when a relationship begins and, therefore, could require reporting. Four out of 10 respondents in the survey said that a relationship began as soon as one of the people thinks of it as a relationship, while 37 percent believed it started as soon as the relationship became physical in any way.

Muir agrees that the starting point is hard to define: “What constitutes a relationship? Is it a kiss? What if we were talking about a case over coffee and it gets frisky?” she says. “The truth is, I haven’t heard much about this over the last few years. As we get back to the office, it will start showing up again.”

The Power Dynamics of a Law Firm

Law firms are partnerships, which makes it difficult for employees to know who is in charge. “Partnerships pose a more complicated problem as compared to a traditional hierarchical corporate structure because of the relatively few tiers, the very large ownership class, and the often unspoken ways in which the members of that ownership class relate to one another,” says Joshua Goodbaum, a Connecticut lawyer who represents employees and is a partner at the New Haven-based law firm Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C.

Goodbaum offers the following hypothetical to illustrate the difference between a company and a law firm: “If you work in the accounting department at Proctor and Gamble, 98 percent of people who work there have nothing to do with the accounting department, and you probably never work with them. Your work is probably pretty siloed. Likewise, you probably know who your boss is, who your boss’s boss is, and all the way up.”

At a large corporate law firm, that’s not the case. “While there might be one partner in charge of all the partners, all the partners are in charge of everyone else,” Goodbaum says, and “every partner at least theoretically could be your boss on a potential matter.”

“When you’re thinking about a consensual relationship in a partnership environment, it poses problems,” Goodbaum says. “It’s not just a problem for the person at the top of the hierarchy opening himself or herself up to an allegation of sexual harassment; it’s a problem for the person on the bottom too, because it may affect how colleagues are going to think about his or her accomplishments.”

Even though they share a title, partners in relationships can pose problems, such as those that arise based on how billing partners decide who gets to work on their matters, Goodbaum says. 

There is a potentially less complicated situation: a relationship between junior associates. “It shouldn’t be as complicated because they are not in a hierarchical relationship with one another, and it’s probably possible to avoid working together on the same team, if necessary,” Goodbaum says.

Think It Through

Dating a colleague is an issue that will present itself in some way at almost every large firm and even small firms, especially as lawyers return to their offices. It may be messy, or it may end in happily ever after. The best advice to take away is always to respect boundaries and always check your firm’s policy on interoffice dating before you ask out that co-worker crush.