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Attorney Safety: Interview With Stephen Kelson

Earlier this year, I shared statistics about threats of violence made against attorneys. Stephen Kelson, a shareholder at Christensen & Jensen PC in Salt Lake City, focuses on commercial litigation, personal injury and meditation, but he has also studied violence against legal professionals and prevention for over a decade. He was gracious to answer some follow-up questions on lawyer safety, based on results from his 26 statewide surveys.

Ruth Carter: How bad is this problem, really? Are there any statistics that show that attorneys are at greater risk of violence than the general population?

Stephen Kelson: The only credible statistics regarding the issue come from the U.S. Marshals Service. Here is some of their data about incident reports for inappropriate communications and threats involving federal judges:

  • 1980-1993: 3,096 incidents (238 per year average)
  • 2001-2007: 5,657 incidents (808 per year average)
  • 2008-2010: 4,062 incidents (1,354 per year average)

It is also difficult to determine whether federal staff and judges have become more aware of the threats of violence and are reporting more, or if there is an actual increase in the number of threats being made.

RC: Who is likely to be the attacker—the attorney's client, the opposition, the opposition's attorney or someone else?

SK: Based on the survey responses, the most likely source of a threat or attack comes from the opposing party on a case. It is more likely that an attorney will receive threats or be attacked by his or her own client than a relative or associate of the opposing party. Unfortunately, practitioners in almost every state surveyed have identified threats and assaults from opposing counsel. However, this number is small in comparison to the total number of reported threats and violence experienced.

RC: Where is a threat or attack against an attorney likely to occur?

SK: The most common locations where threats and violence occur are the business office and the courthouse. However, many respondents over the years have reported numerous threats of violence at other locations, including at home and other locations such as jails, bars, convenience and other stores, restaurants, parking lots and public streets.

RC: What should a law firm do to protect their staff and clients against violence?

SK: The results of my 26 statewide surveys provide some basic advice to avoid violence:

  1. Limit access to offices. Regardless of the size of practice, legal professionals should take steps to minimize the potential for violence in the workplace. Practitioners should establish controls for access to their offices. The purpose is to prevent unwanted individuals from entering the office without detection and wandering about on their own. Once an individual enters the office, he or she should not be allowed to walk around unescorted, and if someone begins to do so, staff should be notified immediately.
  2. Have an office emergency plan. If an individual becomes threatening, attorneys and staff should not hesitate to summon assistance before the threat escalates into violence.
    Code words or phrases can be used to summon help and, to react quickly, legal professionals or staff can have emergency numbers programmed into their phones. Some legal offices have a written emergency plan in case of a threat or violence. Many respondents in the statewide surveys identified incidents in which code words enabled attorneys and staff to avoid or escape a violent individual and contact authorities.
  3. Take credible warning seriously. The vast majority of threats against attorneys go no further. However, many survey respondents reported incidents where psychological counsel or opposing counsel had prevented serious harm and injuries from occurring by warning authorities or opposing counsel of known imminent threats of violence from clients. These warnings prevented many armed individuals from harming legal professionals and their staff.
  4. Be conscious of potential threats. A common location of threats and violence is the courtroom and while attorneys and clients are leaving the courtroom and courthouse. If you have reason to believe a potential threat of violence may occur, notify court personnel and security, ask for an escort to your vehicle, or wait in a safe location until it is verified that the potential perpetrator has left.

RC: What do you recommend in regard to predicting violent behavior?

SK: My primary recommendation is to simply be aware. Many attorneys working in more contentious areas of law with higher reported threats and violence (criminal and family law practitioners) often become less observant of their surroundings and potential threats. When considering if the opposing party or your own client is a threat, some practical questions to consider include:

  • Has the individual made prior threats or carried out an act of violence?
  • What experience has prior counsel had with the individual?
  • Has an intent or plan to harm been expressed?
  • Can the threat be carried out?
  • Has the individual displayed a weapon?
  • Is there a psychological problem or are drugs involved?
  • Whet level of turmoil is the person experiencing?
  • Has the individual considered or attempted self-harm?

RC: What do you think about lawyers or staff "shrugging it off" when they receive a threat?

SK: Responses to the statewide surveys show that the vast majority of all threats go no further. It can be easy for an attorney who has experienced many threats to just "shrug it off." Attorneys should not have to live in fear and always be looking over their shoulder. However, it is necessary to remain observant about potential threats and where they are coming from. Many reported acts of violence against attorneys did not occur without warning.

RC: What are your thoughts about attorneys who conceal carry?

SK: I have no opinion about attorneys who conceal carry. I know many who do. From the thousands of responses to the statewide surveys, only a couple of respondents identified that a concealed gun was used to prevent an act of violence. However, many attorneys have reported purchasing weapons in response to threats and violence.

RC: Thank you for your insights from your research. This is an issue that impacts all lawyers. I hope this spurs the beginning of more conversations about attorney safety, and hopefully, more attorneys will take a more proactive approach to protecting themselves, their staff and their clients.

Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter is a lawyer, writer and speaker. She is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing her practice on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob lab. Named an ABA Journal 2012 Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of the ABA book The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers, as well as Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans. In Nothing But the Ruth, she writes about the lessons she’s learning while building her practice. She blogs at UndeniableRuth.com. Follow her on Twitter @ rbcarter. Previously published in Attorney at Work.

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About the Author: Ruth Carter is a lawyer, writer and speaker. She is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing her practice on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob lab. Named an ABA Journal 2012 Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of the ABA book The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers, as well as Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans. In Nothing But the Ruth, she writes about the lessons she’s learning while building her practice. She blogs at UndeniableRuth.com. Follow her on Twitter @ rbcarter. Previously published in Attorney at Work.

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