A Utah lawyer has quietly studied violence against attorneys for two decades


In the emotional fields of criminal law and family law, litigants experience «a substantial loss … and they look to blame someone,» says Stephen Kelson. Photo by Richard Busath Photography.

A murder-suicide right before the attorney’s eyes. At least two instances of opposing parties hiring hit men to kill a former spouse’s lawyer. Telephoned threats to hurt a counsel’s young daughter on her way home from school.

That’s not at all like Stephen Kelson’s day job as a business litigator, mediator and arbitrator at Christiansen & Jensen in Salt Lake City. But studying violence and threats against attorneys has been a side interest for Kelson for two decades—and he’s one of the few Americans who’s investigated the issue.

“If you go out and look, there really is no method to determine the rate of violence against attorneys,” Kelson says. “It happens, but it rarely gets recorded unless there’s something that really catches the media’s attention.”

Kelson’s interest in the topic dates back to the summer of 1997, when he worked for South Africa’s National Association of Democratic Lawyers just a few years after apartheid ended. The association was making a presentation to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a body created to look into human rights abuses under apartheid—about how the legal profession had been treated. They found plenty of cases of intimidation and violence, Kelson says.

A few years later, while attending Brigham Young University’s law school, Kelson heard from a professor that there were no studies about how attorneys deal with threats and violence. Kelson took up the subject and eventually published a law review article on it. After he graduated and began working for the Utah court system, he conducted a small survey in one district. Then he convinced the Utah State Bar to do a statewide survey. From 2006 through last year, he’s done surveys in 25 states.

Kelson says he stuck with the surveys, even while building his law practice, because there just wasn’t any evidence out there on violence. Early on, he says, there was anecdotal evidence that violence against attorneys was increasing, but only the U.S. Marshals Service was keeping track—and then only of threats to federal judges.

“I thought that was interesting,” Kelson says, “but I also wanted to try and create a baseline that potentially researchers can go back to.”

Kelson’s surveys show that violence happens against attorneys in all practice areas, but especially against those who work in criminal law or family law. Those are practice areas that can be highly emotional, he notes, because they deal with deeply personal issues like parental rights.

“There’s a substantial loss they feel, and they look to blame someone,” he says. “It’s very easy to blame the judge; it’s very easy to blame the attorneys, whether they’re your own or on the other side.”

How lawyers deal with this varies, he says. Some go out and buy guns (a choice Kelson says was reported more often in the Southwest). Some talk to mental health professionals. Some “puff up” and issue threats back, he says—but “if you’re dealing with the wrong person, you’re only going to make the conflict worse.”

Kelson believes the best defense against violence is to avoid it entirely when possible by declining or withdrawing from cases with problematic parties. He also suggests that lawyers remove their home addresses from public listings, separate office reception areas from work areas and create “warning words,” so that front-line staff can subtly communicate that someone being admitted could be a problem.

“If it seems like an emotionally unfit client and that it’s going to be a problem, it’s just not a case I’m going to take,” he says.

This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Problem Clients: For two decades, a Utah lawyer has quietly studied violence against attorneys»


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.