How law firms can manage office romances: Part One - Lawyers Weekly

Like in many professional services industries, office romances are “quite common” in law. Lawyers Weekly spoke with a principal lawyer about some of the issues surrounding office romances, and how law firms can navigate such sensitive territory.

Romance within law firms can be commonplace, McDonald Murholme principal Andrew Jewell surmised, because lawyers spend a lot of time at work, thereby spending that time with fellow lawyers. Most of us have heard stories about people meeting their partners in the course of their legal work, he said.

“Often, these are positive stories. But then you’ll also hear of some of the more controversial stories, partners with people further down the food chain at work, and also stories about relationships not ending well,” he said.

Where law firms have to be more interested, he posited, is situations where you have a more senior lawyer in a relationship with someone more junior, as there are more numerous issues that can arise from such a union.

Being a lawyer can attract a “certain sort of person”, he mused, someone who understands the competitive nature inherent within many practitioners as well as appreciating the hours that may need to be worked. But, largely, it will come back to the need to spend time with colleagues if you are working late, he said.

There are three specific dangers attached to offices romances in a law firm, Mr Jewell posited: a general deterioration or breakup of a relationship, people entering into relationships who are at different levels within the firm, and more controversial relationships, such as extramarital affairs.

There are also issues for one’s wellbeing, he added, as if one experiences a breakup normally, work can sometimes act as a refuge from that heartache.

“You can go in, you’ve got something to distract you, you’ve got clear tasks that you can get done. That would be, I think, extremely difficult if that workplace was actually another place where you had to interact with this individual,” he said.

When asked how and when a law firm should step in, in the context of an office romance, he said such intrusion could be justified where there are clear issues for an individual in question, such as impacts upon work for a client or for the workplace environment more generally.

“In terms of policies, I think [they] need to be grounded in a genuine basis. I don’t think it’s appropriate for any employer, let alone a law firm, to ban certain relationships. I think it might be appropriate for them to require notification of certain relationships,” he outlined.

“It wouldn’t be controversial, I think, for a law firm to say that if a partner was to enter into a relationship with an employee of the firm, that they’d have to notify the firm. I think that’s quite reasonable for reasons of conflict but also to protect the more junior employee.”

For employees on the same level, to say those parties would have to notify the employer of a relationship might be too close to moving into privacy territory, he hypothesised.

“If two people are operating in different workspaces and they enter into a private relationship, I actually don’t believe that the law firm has an ability to require notification.”

“But you probably want to look at power imbalance and people entering into relationships on different levels of management. The safest thing in that situation would be for the firm to require disclosure, and then it’s up to the firm to decide what happens if that disclosure is not forthcoming.”

Reference: ‘How law firms can manage office romances: Part One‘, Lawyers Weekly, Wednesday 25th Janaury 2019