I have a sister that’s a lawyer. She works in nonprofit law, not something I would consider dangerous. Then I started thinking of the lawyer movies I’ve seen, like The Firm and The Pelican Brief, and I started to wonder, is being a lawyer dangerous?
Research seems to say that incidents of violence against lawyers are rare. Yet, in a survey of six states where lawyers were asked if they experienced violence, 40 percent of lawyers in five of those states admitted to being threatened and/or physically assaulted at least once. The types of lawyers that appeared to be targeted most were family law attorneys, prosecutors, and criminal attorneys. Let’s take a closer look and see why it could be considered dangerous to be an attorney.
In 2013, two prosecutors were killed in Kaufman County, Texas, in just two months. First, a deputy district attorney was murdered, and then an elected district attorney was killed with his wife. At the time, it was suspected to involve white supremacists.
The writer who shared this information said that almost every prosecutor he knows has a story, or many stories, of being threatened or confronted by an angry defendant.
Though it isn’t a common thing, at the time of the article, 13 prosecutors have been murdered in the past 50 years.
Former prosecutor Roger Canaff remembers a time when he was threatened by a defendant. They were in court, and he caught the eye of the defendant, and the man slowly drew his finger across his throat. The man was in court on a misdemeanor charge for a domestic violence case. Canaff reported the threat to the police, and the threats ceased. But still, for a time, he was scared.
Cases That Did Not Receive National Attention
Sean May was a prosecutor near Denver, Colorado, who was murdered in 2008. He was shot and killed outside of his home in Denver. He had been a district attorney for seven years when this happened. His wife was about to give birth to a baby boy.
An assistant United States Attorney, Jonathan P. Luna’s body was found in a creek in Pennsylvania in 2003. Though the person who murdered him was never discovered, it did come out in 2020 that the last case he was working on before his death involved a heroin dealer, a kingpin, and a couple of shady lawyers who were defending them.
The evening that he was found murdered, he was overheard arguing with the defendant’s attorneys. It was described by those who heard the argument as heated. It involved a plea deal that was supposed to be drawn up and signed by both parties but understood that Luna was not in agreement.
The next day he didn’t show up for court, and his supervisor, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick, went to Luna’s office to try to find the unfinished plea deal. He found one completed plea deal and one incomplete deal. He cut and pasted between the two deals and signed Luna’s name and initials.
A little while later, the head prosecutors received information that Lunda was found dead in a freezing stream. He had been stabbed dozens of times, and his throat had been slit, practically from ear to ear.
Yes, it can be dangerous to be a prosecutor. However, in order to be able to give their best to the job, some have learned that they need to be aware of the risks but not constantly dwell on the danger.
Attorneys Who Practice Family Law
Sometimes family lawyers are threatened more than other types of lawyers because of the emotions involved in domestic cases. Parents who could lose custody of their children can become like a mama bear when their cub is being threatened. This happened to family lawyer Sara Quirt Sann, 43, who was murdered at her job.
In 2017 she represented a woman who was divorcing her husband and fighting for custody of their kids. The husband, however, didn’t like how things were going, and on March 22, he entered the bank where his wife worked and demanded that she sign the divorce papers that he wanted to be signed. When she tried to flee with the help of coworkers, he shot them all. Then he drove to the law firm where Sann rented an office and forced an employee at gunpoint to tell him where Sann was located. When he found her, he shot her and then killed a policeman before being killed himself by other police officers.
According to an article in abajournal.com, most lawyers will say they have been threatened or assaulted at some point in their careers. But family lawyers will most likely say they have been threatened within the past year. The rate of violence against family lawyers is just higher. Family lawyers have reported getting threats about their children being raped, having their car tires slashed, and seeing clients shot right in front of them.
Steve Kelson started to study violence against lawyers in 2006 and has since surveyed a little less than 12,000 lawyers in 27 states. Though 88.7 percent of the lawyers that responded to his survey said they had received threats or experienced violence, only 8.6 percent said they had actually been assaulted. Yet 42 percent said they had experienced some form of in-person confrontation that came close to assault, and 6.6 percent reported they had received property damage.
What Kelson recommends in these instances are four basic things:
- Limit access to offices. This prevents people you don’t want inside from entering the office undetected. Clients should not be able to wander around the office without an escort.
- Have an emergency plan in place. Things such as code words and phrases should be discussed with other staff should a situation escalate into violence.
- Take threats or warnings seriously. Even though many people make threats but don’t follow through, you should never take a threatening comment lightly. It’s best to report it to the authorities just to be safe.
- Be aware of potential threats. Many incidents happen when leaving the courtroom, so be prepared in advance and take measures to protect yourself should an unwanted verdict cause someone to become violent.
Though most people think being a criminal attorney carries a high risk of danger, it doesn’t appear to be that much more dangerous than working in any other similar profession. Even criminal lawyers say that certain types of law, such as family law and probate litigation (the legal process of handling a person’s debts and asset distribution upon their death), carry more of a risk because, with probate litigation, you are dealing with families who have lost someone they love, and they are often angry. Usually, in these types of cases, the people represented behave less rationally.
How Can Lawyers Protect Themselves
Every day lawyers and judges have found ways to make themselves safer. Security cameras are installed in and around offices and parking lots as one extra precaution. Yet experts in the field of workplace violence have some other suggestions lawyers can make to stay safe. Here are a few tips.
- Whatever room you are in when meeting with a client you believe could be a threat, always make sure there is more than one way to get out of the room.
- If you have concerns about safety, conduct all your meetings at the courthouse. That way, anyone who enters will have to go through a metal detector first, and there will be plenty of security nearby.
- When meeting at the courthouse, request to have a security officer escort you to your car when you leave.
- When clients are upset, always listen with sympathy and concern and remember that there is a possibility that they could be upset enough to hurt you. Be cautious.
- Practice de-escalation techniques. Here are some tips to de-escalate a potentially threatening situation.
- Check yourself. Be conscious of your own body posture, breathing, and tone of voice. If you’re arms or legs are crossed, uncross them. If you appear calm, it can help the other person calm down.
- Get out of the power struggle while still being compassionate about their feelings. Say something like: “I can see that you’re angry right now. I understand that.”
- Be respectful and state your limits and boundaries clearly. You can let them know you understand their anger, but it’s not okay for them to yell (or whatever they are doing that is threatening.)
- Know when to extricate yourself. If you see that the discussion is getting heated, it’s okay to end temporarily and offer to resume the conversation at another time.
- Never look at your phone continually if you think your meeting has the potential to become threatening. Look for ways to escape and make sure the exit is to a public area.
- Keep a gun in the desk drawer. Carrying a gun has been known to escalate the situation if the other party knows you have a gun but keeping it in the desk drawer if you feel there may be a need to protect yourself is considered a good idea.
Final Thoughts – Is Being a Lawyer Dangerous?
Unfortunately, attorneys aren’t the only ones at risk of being threatened by the people they represent. Judges have been known targets, too.
Because of this, courthouses and offices have heightened their security measures and have extended these measures to the parking garages. There are also extra security guards on hand to act as escorts when trials have ended.
It takes everyone pulling together to help protect our court officials so that they can continue to represent the members of the communities they serve and help keep everyone safe.
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Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.