By John G. Browning
We usually don’t consider the practice of law to be a dangerous profession, nestled as we normally are behind desks. But as the articles in the upcoming September issue of the Texas Bar Journal illustrate, violence has a very real impact on the legal profession—from the legal implications of and reactions to mass shootings to the risks faced by attorneys working in areas like family law and criminal law. And the danger is national in scope, as explored by Mark Hansen in his 1998 ABA Journal article, “Lawyers in Harm’s Way.” Hansen’s survey of family lawyers found that 60 percent of the respondents had been threatened by an opposing party, 17 percent had been threatened by their own client, and 12 percent reported being the victims of violence at the hands of an opposing party or client.
Since 2001, Utah attorney Stephen D. Kelson has closely studied the issue of violence against lawyers in multiple states. His 2006 survey of Utah lawyers revealed that 46 percent of the respondents reported being threatened or physically assaulted at least once, with 42 percent of the incidents occurring at the lawyer’s office. Reports from other states point to similar levels of threats or violent acts committed against lawyers, including Idaho (41 percent), Nevada (40 percent), Wyoming (46 percent), Oregon (37 percent), New Mexico (40 percent), Kansas (41 percent), and Arizona (42 percent).
Kelson’s work also showed a shockingly low level of reaction. In the Utah and Arizona surveys, for example, only slightly more than 30 percent of the responding attorneys reported the threats or violence to the police. Similarly low percentages of lawyers acknowledged having altered the way they operated their business, such as taking better or additional security precautions. In Nevada, for example, only 26 respondents that had experienced threats or acts of violence indicated that such incidents had affected their conduct “a great deal.” In the Arizona survey, 47 percent of the attorneys responding reported that the incidents “did not at all” alter the way they conducted their practice, while only 9 percent acknowledged that such threats or acts of violence had caused them to significantly change how they plied their trade.
While the body of research on the issue of violence in the legal profession is still growing—according to Kelson, studies are underway in Iowa and North Carolina—the data compiled thus far has some clear messages for the legal community. First, violence and threats of violence against lawyers are more widespread than commonly thought. Second, while those practicing in the family law and criminal law arenas face the highest risk of violence and threatening behavior, those in other practice areas like general litigation and employment law are by no means immune from danger. Third, nearly half of all violent or threatening interactions involving lawyers happens at law offices—a fact that, while troubling, at least offers the prospect of increased safety through adopting risk reduction measures, better security, or access control. Finally, despite the extent to which violence affects lawyers, a small percentage of attorneys report the incidents to police or take extra safety precautions. This points to a lack of awareness in our profession about the extent and nature of the problem.
From the George Lott shootings in Tarrant County to the senseless 2013 murders of Kaufman County assistant prosecutor Mark Hasse and Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, Texas has been no stranger to this dilemma. It’s time to take steps to combat the problem. Texas doesn’t need any more wake-up calls.
Check out the next issue of the Texas Bar Journal, to be mailed in early September, for violence-related legal articles “Killing the Messenger: Violence against litigators and the bench” (p. 712) and “Response Rate: How to prepare for and deal with violence in Texas Schools” (p. 708).