Surge in client/lawyer sex claims

A LEADING US employment attorney has urged law firms to take action to prevent clients from sexually harassing their lawyers after recent cases in the US showed the practice was on the increase.

LA lawyer Karen Kaplowitz told ABA delegates a growing number of actions involving sexual harassment by clients, opposing counsel and judges had been initiated in the US, and said lawyers should think how to deal with the problem.

She suggested sending clients – the most common perpetrators of third party harassment – standard letters stating the firm's policy on the issue, but admitted such a step could damage client-lawyer relations and cost firms work.

Kaplowitz said the “incredible surge” of sexual harassment cases in the US would see even more third party cases and firms would have to prepare themselves to deal with potential litigation.

“These kinds of cases are, I believe, going to be the next major trend in this arena,” she said. “We've got to be prepared to deal with the problem and deal with it head on.”

Kaplowitz, who warned that equal opportunities guidelines in the US meant employers could find themselves being sued by harassed employees, said staff had to be encouraged to come forward if they experienced problems.

“Employers may be responsible for the actions of non-employees, where the employer knew or should have known of the conduct and failed to take immediate and appropriate action,” she said. “It only takes one bad conflict between a lawyer and a client to derail someone's career.”

Kaplowitz said that firms should take action as soon as they were notified of a potential problem, and added that they must conduct a “thorough” investigation.

And, despite the desire to keep the matter in-house, she said that firms should also consider appointing an independent person to carry out the investigation.

“If the alleged harasser is your client, and the alleged victim is a lawyer in your office, it may be quite difficult to delegate to a third party the investigation of that client,” said Kaplowitz.

“You're not going to want to call up another law firm.”