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Violence and threats against lawyers is a growing concern in Canada

The shocking death of an Arizona law firm partner last month at the hands of a mediation opponent has shaken up legal communities across North American and has brought the issue of workplace violence in the legal profession to the fore. In Canada, the issue of violence against lawyers has received little attention yet available research and anecdotal evidence suggest that many law professionals face a higher-than-average risk of work-related violence and threats.

This month’s column will highlight some of the more notable workplace violence incidents involving lawyers in the United States and Canada. The findings of several research studies on violence and threats against lawyers will be introduced and the related implications for Canadian lawyers will be discussed.

Notable incidents

In the most recent incident, a 43 year old Arizona lawyer and his client were shot and killed immediately following a mediation meeting with an unrepresented litigant over a $47,000 office cubicle contract. In the most infamous workplace violence incident related to the legal profession, in 1993, a former client shot and killed eight people at the San Francisco law offices of Pettit and Martin.

In Canada, recent assaults or threats against lawyers have made media headlines in Montreal, Toronto, Prince George, Ottawa, Edmonton and other Canadian cities. In Montreal, a business litigation lawyer received death threats and his home was attacked twice with lit Molotov cocktails. In 2011, two Montreal criminal defence lawyers were also brutally attacked at or near their homes. In the Prince George incident, a Crown Prosecutor was severely beaten in what appears to have been a targeted attack across the street from a courthouse.

Research from outside Canada

Given the nature of the work conducted by law professionals and the active representation of the profession by Bar Associations and Law Societies, it would seem reasonable to expect that meaningful research would have been conducted into violence against lawyers. Surprisingly, however, there are a mere handful of completed research studies in North America, and only one such study in Canada.

The earliest study appears to have been published in 1998 in the American Bar Association Journal, written by Mark Hansen, “Lawyers in Harm’s Way”. In his study, Hansen surveyed 253 family lawyers, finding that:

  • 60 percent said they had been threatened by an opposing party;
  • 17 percent said they had been threatened by their own client;
  • 12 percent reported they had been victims of violence at the hands of an opposing party or by their client; and
  • only 1 in 4 respondents said they had taken any special precautions to protect their safety.

In summing up the threat of violence to family law practitioners, one veteran counsel who responded to the survey put it aptly:

A criminal defence lawyer sees bad people at their best……We see good people at their worst!”

The next sizeable study was published in 2001 in the Utah Bar Journal, written by Stephen Kelson, “An Increasingly Violent Profession“. In this research study, Kelson heard from 130 lawyers, finding that:

  • 13 percent had been physically assaulted at least once;
  • 59 percent had been threatened by a client or opposing party at least once;
  • 41 percent considered the threats serious enough to be reported to police;

While a higher percentage of violent and threatening incidents was found to have occurred in criminal and family law settings, the Utah study also found violence/threats to be prevalent in employment and civil law settings, as well as other practice areas. The location of occurrences was also varied, with Kelson noting that lawyers in the study had been subjected to violence or threats in the courtroom, courthouse hallways, parking lots, law offices, and at their homes. As Kelson rightly observed:

Violence in the legal profession can come from both sides of any given case and reach nearly all aspects of a lawyer’s life. Recognizing that the danger exists is the first step for lawyers to deal with the problem of violence in the profession.”

An expanded state-wide survey of Utah lawyers was published in 2006 in the Utah Bar Journal by Stephen Kelson, “Violence Against the Utah Legal Profession: A Statewide Survey“. In total, 984 lawyers responded to the survey and the findings showed that:

  • 46 percent has been threatened or physically assaulted at least once;
  • 27 percent had experienced 4 or more threats during their legal career;
  • 42 percent of threatening and/or violent incidents occurred at the lawyers office;
  • only 32 percent of lawyers who were threatened or suffered violent acts reported the incident(s) to the police.

Kelson summed up the findings:

Contrary to public perception, members of the Bar are not exempt from workplace violence, but in fact regularly face danger from opposing parties, interested parties, and their own clients, at anyplace and at anytime.”

Kelson conducted a further study featured in The Advocate, the official publication of the Idaho State Bar in 2008, entitled, “Violence Against the Idaho Legal Profession: Results of a 2008 Survey“. In the Idaho study Kelson surveyed 965 lawyers, finding that:

  • 42 percent had been threatened or physically assaulted at least once;
  • 72 percent of those who experienced threats or violence had suffered more than one such incident;
  • only 39 percent of lawyers who were threatened or suffered violent acts reported the incident(s) to the police.

Most recently, Stephen Kelson authored, “Violence Against the Nevada Legal Profession” based on a 2012 survey conducted by The State Bar of Nevada and published in Nevada Lawyer Magazine. Responses were received from 1039 lawyers across the State of Nevada. The key findings included:

  • 40 percent reported they had been threatened or assaulted at least once;
  • 78 percent of those who had been threatened or assaulted reported multiple such occurrences;
  • 43 percent of threatening or violent incidents occurred at the lawyer’s office;
  • only 23 percent of those who had received threats or been the victims of an assault had reported the incident to the police;
  • only 26 percent of those experiencing threats or violence reported that the incident(s) changed the way they operate their legal business to any great extent (i.e., take better/extra security precautions);
  • general litigation, criminal defence, family/divorce and state/federal prosecution were the practice areas with the highest percentage of threats and violence.

Kelson, who is a lawyer and a specialist in violence within the legal profession, summarized the Nevada findings:

Contrary to the general assumption, a significant percentage of [lawyers] have and do face threats and/or violence in their practice….The survey’s results clearly show that no member of The State of Nevada bar can simply assume that they are immune from the potential of workplace violence.”

Canadian research

The next study was (and remains) the only in-depth research completed in Canada on the issue of violence and threatening conduct against lawyers. It was conducted in 2005 by Karen Brown under the auspices of a Masters degree thesis at Simon Fraser University. Brown’s research paper, “An Exploratory Analysis of Violence and Threats Against Lawyers” reported the findings from a survey of 1152 lawyers operating in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

The responses from lawyers in the British Columbia research study showed that:

  • almost 60 percent reported receiving some degree and number of threats or violence;
  • 40 percent reported receiving two or more threats;
  • over 18 percent reported experiencing explicit threats or assaults;
  • almost 50 percent of violent/threatening incidents occurred at the lawyer’s office;
  • only 23 percent of respondents reporting threatening interactions reported the incident(s) to the police;
  • 31 percent of the 683 respondents reporting threatening interactions changed their business conduct as a result of the incident(s);
  • 73% of criminal defence lawyers, 82% of crown prosecutors and 86% of family lawyers reported receiving anything from one to more than four threatening interactions;
  • 65% of general litigation lawyers, 77% of administrative law practitioners and 63% of labour and human rights law practitioners reported some type and quantity of abuse, threats or violence.

In summarizing the research findings, Brown observed:

It can be stated with certainty that lawyers are receiving abuse, threats and injuries as a result of discharging legal responsibilities…..What is extremely significant is lawyers from [different] areas of practice report shifting degrees of threats and violence, establishing the pattern that not only are specific practice areas affected, but also the law profession in its entirety is under threat.”

Implications

The body of research is still growing on the issue of violence and threats against lawyers but the findings of the various studies to date come together to send some clear messages to the legal community and their representative bodies:

  1. Violence and threats against lawyers are far more widespread than conventional wisdom might suppose. The research consistently shows that at least half of the lawyers surveyed have experienced violent or threatening conduct and a high percentage of those experiencing one incident go on to encounter two, three or more incidents.
  2. Not enough lawyers take extra security precautions following a violent or threatening incident. This finding suggests a lack of awareness on the part of many lawyers that threats and violence exist along a continuum and today’s threats can become tomorrow’s violence.
  3. A relatively small proportion of threats and violence against lawyers is reported to police. This lack of reporting is troubling given the type of work conducted by many law firms and the potential for litigants, clients and other vested individuals to seek retribution when things don’t go their way in a legal transaction.
  4. Almost half of all violent or threatening or violent interactions involving lawyers occur at law offices. While troubling, this finding offers an opportunity for meaningful risk reduction through increased security and access control protection at lawyers offices
  5. Lawyers practicing in the areas of criminal defence/prosecution and family/divorce law have been shown to face the highest risk of violence and threatening conduct within the legal community. Surprisingly, other practice areas – general litigation, labour/employment and human rights law in particular – also face elevated risk levels according to the research.

Conclusion

This column is an attempt to illuminate an issue that should be afforded a higher level of priority within the Canadian law profession, as well as among its representative bodies. Available research as well as anecdotal evidence from workplace safety consultants (including this author) suggest that work-related violence, threatening behaviour, abuse, and harassment against Canadian lawyers are far more pervasive than commonly acknowledged.

A number of collective opportunities exist within the wider legal community to begin to address and lower the risk of violence against lawyers. Violence prevention and threat management should become topics of discussion and study within law school curricula, ensuring that new lawyers enter the field with their eyes fully open to the threat of violence and a range of best practice security precautions.

Representative bodies within the legal profession also need to step up. Lunch and learn sessions and well-researched security awareness publications are two options that could help to better educate existing lawyers when it comes to threat identification and risk mitigation. A good example of industry-led education with a focus on violence prevention and security was a recent presentation made to The Law Office Management Association (TLOMA) by this author entitled, “Effective Lobby and Reception Area Security: A Law Firm’s Best Defence“.

Law Societies and Bar Associations should also conduct Canadian research to more clearly identify the nature and extent of the problem of violence and threats within the law community in Canada. Centralized reporting of threats and violence by lawyers to representative bodies (in parallel with reporting to the police where required) is another option that would help to identify discernible patterns in support of increased awareness and targeted risk reduction efforts.

David Hyde
David Hyde and Associates

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David Hyde

Security and business risk consultant at David Hyde and Associates
David Hyde, M.Sc, CPC is a security and business risk consultant, author and educator with 26 years of broad-based leadership experience. He is principal consultant with David Hyde and Associates and in this role is a trusted advisor to a number of Canada’s top corporations on operational and reputational due diligence matters. Read more
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