84 A.B.A. J. 93 (1998)
Your ABA

handle is hein.journals/abaj84 and id is 285 raw text is: Lawyers in Harm's Way
Many surveyed report threats of violence in domestic relations cases

BY MARK HANSEN
Thile most divorce attorneys are
V aware of the potential dangers
that come with their line of work,
few of them do much to try to protect
themselves, a new survey shows.
In an informal survey sent by
fax last fall to members of the ABA
Section of Family Law, 60 percent
of the respondents said they had
been threatened by an opposing
party in a case, and 17 percent said
they had been threatened by their
own client. Twelve percent report-
ed they had been victims of vio-
lence at the hands of either a client
or an opposing party at least once.
Yet only one in four survey re-
spondents said they had taken any
special precautions to ensure their
own safety. The vast majority-74
percent-had done nothing to pro-
tect themselves.
Those who have taken precau-
tions have done everything from
installing panic buttons under
their desks to keeping their doors
locked. One lawyer in Portland,
Ore., said he hides a golf club be-
hind his office door.
Several lawyers interviewed
say they are not surprised by the
findings, given the emotionally
charged nature of proceedings in
divorce and other domestic relations
cases. But many lawyers do not take
such threats seriously, some say,
because they don't believe any harm
will ever come to them.
Maurice Jay Kutner, a Miami
lawyer who chairs the Family Law
Section, says that when a party in a
divorce gets angry or frustrated by
the course of the proceedings, the
spouse's lawyer stands second be-
hind the spouse in the line of fire.
A criminal defense lawyer sees
bad people at their best, he adds.
We see good people at their worst.
Kutner says he has been threat-
ened seven or eight times in his 30
years as a divorce lawyer, but none
of the threats ever resulted in vio-
lence. Nevertheless, he takes pre-
cautions-from watching his step
to avoiding personal confrontations
with opposing parties.
That probably goes a long way

toward preventing any problems,
he says.
According to Chicago divorce
lawyer Joseph DuCanto, who says
he has been threatened many times
in his 43-year practice, such behav-
ior goes with the territory. You're
dealing with people who are in an
angry, unhappy mode, so you can

maurice runer: -we see gooa peopie or mei
anticipate that at least some of
these people are going to be less
than cordial.
Be Nice and Be on Guard
DuCanto says he avoids becom-
ing a victim primarily by being pre-
pared. That includes treating the
other side with courtesy and respect,
not taking threats lightly, getting
extra protection if necessary, and re-
porting to opposing counsel any cli-
ent who shows animus toward the
other party.
Karen J. Mathis of Denver,
chair of the ABA Commission on
Women in the Profession, does a lot
of bankruptcy work, which she says
is another high-risk field of practice.
Mathis, who has lectured, writ-
ten and counseled firms on work-
place violence, says lawyers who are
in the business of taking something
away-be it children or property-

ABAJ/TOM SALYER

can avoid becoming an easy target
'by treating opposing parties with
kindness and respect.
She also suggests that lawyers
limit access to their offices, schedule
conferences in neutral settings, and
have an emergency plan in place.
All lawyers should have a zero
tolerance policy toward violence,
Mathis adds. You can't ig-
nore a physical threat. You
have to take all threats at
face value.
Donna Wesson Smalley,
a general practitioner in Tus-
caloosa, Ala., knows first-
hand what it is like to have
a violent client. She was re-
turming to her office one day
in October 1993 when she
saw her client, a motorcycle
cop in the final stages of a
divorce, shoot and kill his
estranged wife, then turn
the gun on himself.
It was a horrendous
thing to watch, she says.
And it was totally unfore-
seen.
Smalley, now a partner
in a two-lawyer firm, says
the shooting caused her to
re-evaluate her own safety.
worst. Shortly afterward, she says,
she moved into a new office
with a separate reception area and
several avenues of escape. The re-
ceptionist's desk is also equipped
with a panic button that automati-
cally summons police.
Smalley says the experience
taught her a valuable lesson: Law-
yers who deal with domestic issues
every day tend to underestimate the
emotional toll a divorce can take and
to discount the significance of an an-
gry gesture or threatening remark.
They say to themselves, 'It
can't happen to me,' Smalley says.
They see it as just part of the cost
of doing business.
But Smalley knows better.
The legal issues may be sim-
ple, but the emotional issues are
not, she says. And you never
know when or where domestic vio-
lence will strike. It crosses all socio-
economic lines, and it could happen
at any time.                  U
ABA JOURNAL / MARCH 1998 93

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