State Bar President: Threats, Violence Are ‘A Risk Of What We Do’

Threats To Attorneys Happen, Although They Rarely Lead To Violence

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Matty Ring (CC-BY)

The death of attorney Sara Quirt Sann in the recent Wausau area shooting spree has shaken Wisconsin’s legal community. For many who practice criminal or family law, threats of violence are part of the job.

“Sara lost her life because she was doing her job,” said Fran Deisinger, president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. “This has always been a risk of what we do … Domestic matters seem to be the most fraught with danger and generate the most threats, but it almost never really results, thank God, in actual violence.”

Sann was reportedly shot by the estranged husband of a client in a divorce case. The suspect killed three other people, including a police officer.

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While acts of violence against attorneys are rare, threats are common and under-reported, said Stephen Kelson, a Salt Lake City attorney conducting a study of the subject.

“When threats and violence come up, and are being experienced by attorneys, very often they don’t report it and they don’t talk about it,” Kelson said. “They just kind of put it aside and keep going on with their business. The issue generally only comes up when something horrific happens, unfortunately.”

Kelson mailed questionnaires to attorneys in 26 states. About 40 percent of those who responded said they had been threatened at work.

“Attorneys are easy to point the finger at,” he said. “Especially when you are talking about criminal law or divorce law, you’re dealing with issues which involve life, liberty and property — things that people take very dearly to heart.”

Kelson said attorneys can take steps to protect themselves by reporting threats, securing their offices, not listing their home addresses and screening their clients.

“Very often attorneys may feel that they have to take the client when they come in the door,” he said. “But if you know that you’re dealing with a violent individual, whether it’s your own client or on the other side, it doesn’t mean you have to take the case.”

But Deisinger said regardless of the precautions, an attorney can never be completely safe.

“At the end of the day, if somebody is absolutely committed to do harm, there’s very little that a lawyer or any business person or anyone can do to absolutely prevent that,” Deisinger said.