Illegal love?

I've been flirting with my law professor for months now. Should I make the first move?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 19, 2002 8:20PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My situation involves myself and a professor.

It started innocently enough. He's (relatively) young, confident, charming and handsome, and I was drawn. Over the last couple of months, flirting has ensued; and while I've tried to repress my feelings, my attraction is beginning to consume me. I have come to realize that the attraction is mutual. I am generally very timid about these sorts of things and this perceived obliviousness that I exhibit has actually drawn him out of his shell. He has been making more overt gestures. So, here we have mutuality of attraction. But I am still his student, so I don't think he will make a move. My friends (outside of university) think I am crazy to think that this situation will just stand as is for much longer.

We have great interaction and the few times that we have allowed the conversation to wander outside the realm of course work, we have found quite a bit of common points of interest. Office hours is literally that! I walk in, we start talking, I walk out and look at my watch and an hour (or more) has passed from when I walked in.

I have weighed the principles at stake. I have no intention of making any move while I am still his student (unless you can convince me that it would not be unethical). He's a young professor, I am in my late 20s and the age gap is some 15 years (this is law school).

Should I come clean with him? Should I wait for him to get thrown over the edge by my reserved nature? Is it not the most flattering thing to have someone think your (pained) shyness is adorable?


Dear Blushed,

I would say two things: 1) You have to break off this friendship until you have graduated, and 2) whether you simply break it off wordlessly or you choose to tell him your ethical and emotional concerns is a complicated question you will have to answer yourself. The problem with discussing it with him is the difference in power and sophistication between you two. He's a law professor; law professors are by definition experts in the art of argument; they can make things seem the way they want them to seem. If you could be sure that he was completely ethical and had only your interests at heart, I would say go ahead and tell him that you're attracted to him but are going to refrain from seeing him alone until you have graduated. But if he is not ethical -- and the fact that he's let it go this far shows no deep and penetrating scrupulosity, although it could stem from social obtuseness -- he might use that occasion to twist reality and ethics and take advantage of your attraction to him.

Make a frank and thorough assessment of his ethics, based on what you can learn about his past behavior. If there have been ethics charges lodged against him by the bar association, or in university hearings, or if you find out that he has had affairs with students before, you should probably just break it off immediately without a word.

The possibility of subtle reprisals troubles me. Are you receiving favorable treatment from him in school? If you break it off without a word, that special treatment would probably cease, and you might feel that he's mistreating you, but that might be hard to prove. He could argue that prior to your stopping your visits he was just giving you some voluntary extra help during regular office hours.

I'm way out of my league as regards the discrimination issues; I'm decidedly not the lawyer here. But as a younger co-worker reminded me, there is no situation in which a relationship between a student and a professor can be even remotely OK. That's why there are rules against it. So regardless of how you do it, whether it's amicable or messy, it's clear that you need to stop this before it reaches its obvious destination.

Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

Cary Tennis

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