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Office Romances & The Law

  Practice Focuses  -   POSTED: 2008/02/15 11:56

Recently, on the American version of the TV show “The Office,” two of the main characters — Jim and Pam — confess to their co-workers that they’ve become romantically involved. In the spirit of openness and responsibility, the couple goes to the head of human resources, Toby, to ask whether they need to sign something attesting to their relationship. Toby (Paul Lieberstein), who also has a thing for Pam, tells them that won’t be necessary.

With Valentines Day upon us, we found ourselves asking: What would’ve happened if Jim and Pam were lawyers? Would they have insisted on signing a love contract to establish their rights and remedies in the event of a break-up? If Jim and Pam were both hard-working associates, would their relationship be more susceptible to trouble?

To work through these relationship issues — and the law that governs them — we caught up with Ashley Brightwell, a partner at Alston & Bird in Atlanta. Brightwell, who focuses on employment litigation, filled us in on the rise of love contracts, the phenomenon of lawyers who date lawyers and best practices for conducting a firm romance.

Hi Ashley. Thanks for chatting. So you’re a specialist on office romances. Talk about that a bit.

I do a lot of sexual harassment cases, mostly defending the company. Of sex harassment cases, I’d say a third stem from something that arguably began as a consensual relationship – either formal dating, or an affair — and then morphs into a bad break-up or something that’s no longer consensual. Or, just something as simple as inter-office flirtation where one party thought it was mutual, and the other party either never thought it was, or things progressed into it becoming unwelcome.

What are “love contracts”?

It used to be that many companies had strict prohibitions on office romances. Then they recognized that wasn’t going to work, and that no matter what the policies were, employees were going to get involved. That’s when the idea of a love contract came along. It’s a tool that employers use to protect themselves when an office romance goes sour. It’s a document that confirms that a relationship is voluntary and informs the parties of the company’s sexual harassment policies. It sets out a procedure if, at any point, the relationship goes south.

Let’s focus on law firms. We’ve heard a lot about the concept of “firm boyfriends” and “firm girlfriends.” Not romances, but the kinds of close relationships that develop between lawyers who spend more time with each other than they do with their families. Do a lot of law firm affairs begin like that?

I don’t have hard stats to back this up, but the number of affairs in law firms and romances that end up in marriage seem to be greater than in the general population. In large part, it’s because you’ve got a lot of people who are close in age, doing the same work, working alongside each other and putting in long hours. It’s inevitable, in those circumstances, that you’re going to have a lot of office romances.

What are the major pitfalls for lawyers who date lawyers? Take a partner dating an associate, for example.

I think when you’ve got a partner and an associate you’ve got two big issues. First is the fact that a partner can control the associate. Whether the relationship is going great or whether it goes south, the partner can really affect the person’s employment – in terms of the work they get, their reviews, and possibly even their salaries. The other issue is this: the perception among other associates and partners. For instance, if a female associate is getting great benefits because of a relationship it can result in hostile work environment claims from those outside the relationship.

Let’s try a hypothetical. I’m a sleep-deprived second-year associate who can’t find much time to socialize outside of work. One day I come running into your office, jump up and down on your couch, and confess that — on a firm-sponsored booze cruise — I fell in love with a summer associate. Advise me.

First you look and see what your firm’s policies say. If relationships are permissible in your organization, then there shouldn’t be a problem as far as HR or management are concerned. But I’d still advise informing someone higher up that it’s going on. And if that summer decides to become a lawyer at your firm, I’d take whatever steps I could to make sure you’re not working with that person. I’d avoid day-to-day interaction.

But I don’t need to fight my feelings, right?

Well, firms and companies are recognizing that if you have a policy against office romances, it’s just going to be broken. So they’re dealing with them in different ways – whether you call it a love contract or something less cheesy. So often I see things go bad, and then one person comes in and says it was never consensual to begin with. Typically, that person can produce a big stack of emails which look quite bad. But you can prevent a lot with a love contract in which the parties agree it’s voluntary.

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