Attorney-Client Unethical Relationships

Linda Lowney, an attorney in California, was recently suspended for taking “advantage of a lonely, sick old man,” as stated by a judge of the State Bar Court.  In 2002, Lowney drafted a will for the elderly client, in which the client provided for his estate to be divided between his sister and two nieces.  Three years later, the attorney (age 54) became romantically involved with her client (then aged 85).

As he was in poor health, the client called his nieces and had them agree to transfer a total of $339,000 to Lowney so she could “use the money to take care of him.”  The next year, in 2006, Lowney and her client married, using a confidential marriage license so that the nuptials would stay out of public records.  Less than one year later, the client asked for a divorce and soon after was moved to a nursing home where he died in early 2007.  As if this were not sketchy enough, Lowney didn’t tell the client’s nieces of his death and then discouraged them from coming to the U.S. from Norway for the funeral.

In another similar story, Emmett Corrigan, an attorney from Idaho was shot and killed recently by the husband of a female client, for whom he had filed a divorce for the day before.  This woman was apparently Corrigan’s assistant and her husband suspected she was having an affair with him.

The theme running throughout both of these stories is not just the horrible outcomes, but the unethical relationships occurring between attorneys and clients.  This type of abuse of power is disturbing, especially in the area of family or matrimonial law, where attorneys are working closely with their clients on important legal family matters, including pre-nups, divorces, child custody, etc.  If attorneys take advantage of vulnerable clients (who are for example, elderly and ailing, are experiencing a marital breakdown, or are in an abusive relationship), how are we, as a profession, supposed to redeem ourselves?  And how will emotionally-conflicted and weary clients feel comfortable trusting their attorneys if such vulnerabilities are being taken advantage of by everyday family law attorneys?

As a future hopeful family law lawyer, I see major issues with representation of such intimate family issues.  The easy access to client confidences through vulnerability is apparent.  How is a client supposed to trust that her attorney, who is supposed to be supporting her side, won’t take advantage of her situation?  How are we supposed to prevent these situations from happening?  Or are these just a few isolated incidents which unfortunately made headlines to smear the reputation of family law attorneys?