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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 12, 2019

    The Threat of Violence: What Wisconsin Lawyers Experience

    Results of a recent survey help fill in the details regarding physical and psychological harm threatened or carried out against Wisconsin lawyers and judges. 

    Stephen D. Kelson

    stormy sky

    Violence is an ever-present concern in the United States, including among members of the legal profession. In 2018 alone, U.S. media reported several sensational acts of violence against lawyers and paralegals. For example, in Alabama, a district attorney was ambushed in his vehicle outside his office and shot in the face. In Nevada, a murder suspect hit his pregnant defense counsel in the face while in court. In Georgia, a divorce attorney was shot and killed in his office by the husband of a former client. In Missouri, an attorney was shot and killed on his front porch by the defendant in a personal-injury case. In Florida, following a murder conviction, the defendant attacked his attorney. In Arizona, two paralegals were shot to death at the law office where they worked. In Indiana, a public defender was shot and killed outside his home.

    Based on the infrequent publicized reports of threats and violence against the legal profession, one might think that such incidents are unique and extremely rare, but they are real and serious issues. However, media stories of violence against lawyers and judges rarely report or take into account the many diverse forms in which violence occurs, including threats, vandalism, sabotage, assaults, and physical attacks.

    While threats and violence are not always openly addressed topics, and when they are discussed, personal experiences often are minimized, the reality is that many lawyers and judges, including those in Wisconsin, face threats and violence related to their work, sometimes with tragic outcomes.

    This article examines work-related threats and violence against the legal profession, and provides a look into work-related threats and violence reported by State Bar of Wisconsin members in a recent survey.

    Studies of Threats and Violence Against the Legal Profession

    Only limited research exists on the subject of violence against the legal profession. However, of the research that does exist, studies show that a substantial amount of violence is regularly directed at lawyers and judges – and that violence may be increasing. For example, decades of statistics gathered by the U.S. Marshals Service provide disquieting data regarding violence against federal judicial officials in the United States.

    Stephen D. KelsonStephen D. Kelson is a shareholder in Christensen & Jensen PC, Salt Lake City, Utah. For more than a decade, he has studied, documented, and conducted surveys regarding violence against the legal profession and methods to prevent workplace violence. He focuses his practice on commercial litigation, personal injury, and mediation.

    During the 13 fiscal years 1980 through 1993, there were 3,096 recorded inappropriate communications and threats targeting federal judges – an average of 238 per year.1 In comparison, during the three fiscal years 2008 through 2010, there were 4,062 inappropriate communications or threats – an estimated average of 1,354 per year.2 In fiscal year 2017 alone, the U.S. Marshals Service reported 2,847 “threats and inappropriate communications against protected court members.”3 Recently released statistics for fiscal year 2018 report 4,542 “threats and inappropriate communications against protected court members,” an increase of 1,695 in a single year, and the highest reported number since the U.S. Marshals Service began reporting the statistic.4

    There is no national method for reporting threats and violence against lawyers and judges. However, to date, the author has conducted 29 statewide surveys, either independently or in conjunction with state bar associations, regarding threats and violence against the legal profession. More than 29,000 attorneys have responded to the surveys. The results provide significant insight into the nature and frequency of work-related threats and violence experienced by in-state, active members of state bar associations, the overwhelming majority of which have never been publicly reported. The results show that lawyers and judges are not exempt from workplace violence, but in fact, many face danger from their own clients, opposing parties, and nonparty individuals, at any place and at any time. See Figure 1.

    Acts of violence reported in these state surveys include numerous shootings, stabbings, assaults, and batteries, as well as vandalism to businesses and personal property. Threats of violence have been made or accompanied by stalking, phone calls, written letters, emails, texts, online posts, oral threats of physical violence and death, and even attempts to hire hit men to kill attorneys and judges. The results of each of these state surveys show that violence and threats of violence against the legal profession are much more prevalent than reported by the media or commonly perceived by lawyers.

    The remainder of this article discusses the results of the Wisconsin survey.

    Figure 1: Results of 29 Statewide Surveys


    In-State Membership


    % In-State Membership

    Threats/ Violence

    % Respondents





































    New Mexico


















    N. Carolina






























    N. Dakota












    Rhode Island










































    S. Carolina


















    S. Dakota






    New Hampshire












    The Survey of Violence Against the Wisconsin Legal Profession

    In conjunction with the author, the State Bar of Wisconsin conducted the survey in March 2019 of in-state, active members. The questions sought responses regarding the following issues:

    • Whether respondent had ever received threats or been the victim of violence

    • Types of threats and violence

    • Number of threats received

    • Whether threats or violence occurred while employed in public or private practice

    • Locations where threats occurred

    • Association between threats and assaults

    • Relationship with perpetrator

    • Whether incidents were reported to the police

    • When threat or violence last occurred

    • Change in conduct (as a result of threats or violence)

    • Demographic information

    For the purposes of the survey, a threat was defined as: “A written or verbal intention to physically hurt or punish another, and/or a written or verbal indication of impending physical danger or harm.” In March 2019, the State Bar of Wisconsin invited its 13,827 active, in-state members who are attorneys, judges, or justices to participate in the survey. The survey received a good return of 1,038 responses, which is 7.5 percent of all active, in-state members.5

    Threats and Acts of Physical Violence

    The survey’s chief question asked respondents if, while a member of the Wisconsin legal profession, they had ever been the recipient of a threat or had been the victim of a violent act. Of the 1,038 responses to this question, 510 (49.1 percent) of the respondents reported that they had been threatened or physically assaulted at least once. This percentage places Wisconsin as having one of the highest percentage of respondents reporting threats and violence of the 29 statewide surveys.

    However, just because the reported percentage is high, it does not necessarily mean that Wisconsin lawyers and judges experience more threats and violence than those in other states. Numerous factors should be considered, including but not limited to response bias, recent events that may increase the response rate, and the survey method.

    Respondents to the Wisconsin survey provided hundreds of examples of work-related threats and violence perpetrated against them. Some verbatim examples of egregious threats and violence reported include the following:

    • Once during a Section 341 bankruptcy hearing, a debtor I was examining attempted to attack me from across the table.

    • While a judge, a defendant with a prior murder conviction who had made threatening remarks to others about me, upon release from prison came to what he thought was my house looking for me.

    • Attacked by client who attempted to stab me with my pen[.] [A]lthough I was able to prevent that from occurring, I did suffer damage to my shoulder, which required surgery, as well as minor bruises and cuts.

    • On one occasion, I was representing a woman in a paternity case and the father of the child was caught peering in the windows of my home.

    • After representing a victim in a restraining order hearing, the defendant sat outside the courthouse with his friends in the back of a pick-up truck holding guns and staring me down trying to intimidate and scare me.

    • Opposing party threatened all attorneys and staff working on his case. Threats included voicemail and letters. … Threats were real as he eventually drove his vehicle through a medical facility.

    • During a contentious real estate case, my partner and I were sent dead fishes just prior to the deposition of the opposing party. It was clearly meant to intimidate us.

    • Four death threats via letters, via phone two bomb threats, three in-person away from workplace threats, death threat at my home, and approximately a dozen anonymous phone threats warning me of harm.

    • Gas can and gloves left on my front lawn.

    • [M]y kitchen window was shot out, gang graffiti was painted on my front sidewalk.

    • In one case, the defendant arrived at my office with a loaded shotgun but was apprehended by police.

    Not surprisingly, many of the threats and acts of violence were reported by respondents who said that the majority of their legal practice comprised family law (15.9 percent) and criminal defense or prosecution (25.7 percent). However, respondents in other areas of practice also reported being the recipients of threats and violence: judge (11.0 percent); corporate/commercial/real estate (5.1 percent); labor/employment/civil rights (3.5 percent); administrative (3.5); general litigation (10.0 percent); wills/estates (5.5 percent); and other (19.6 percent).

    Wisconsin’s Survey: Key Findings of Victims of Threats or Violence

    Wisconsin’s Survey: Key Findings of Victims of Threats or Violence

    Types of Threats and Violence

    The survey asked respondents to identify the types of threats and acts of violence received relating specifically to their responsibilities as a legal practitioner. Of the 487 individuals who answered this question, the overwhelming majority identified inappropriate and threatening communications and approaches. Inappropriate and threatening communications were those communicated orally, either in person, through third parties, or by phone; or in writing, by letters or cards, email, social media, and so on. Inappropriate approaches included face-to-face confrontations, attempts to commit violence, and being followed. A total of 52 respondents reported being the victim of a physical assault.

    Inappropriate communications were made primarily in person or by phone and included direct and veiled threats. For example, among the reported threats were the following:

    • I’ll kill you.

    • Watch yourself.

    • I’ll get you.

    • I’ll blow you up.

    • I’ll shoot the place up.

    • You won’t get out of the office alive.

    • We’re watching.

    • I know what you look like.

    • I know where you live.

    • I know what you drive.

    • Watch your back.

    • I have lots of guns.

    • Hope your kids aren’t home.

    • We know where you live.

    Many respondents reported threats were directed against their families and children. For example:

    • [A] Valentine’s Day card sent to my children at home from a man I prosecuted for multiple violent crimes.

    • A defendant in a child sexual assault case telephoned my home and threatened my young daughter.

    • I overheard a defendant, when told of my position, advise another defendant to “follow him home and kill his family.”

    • [J]uvenile defendants have approached my children at school.

    U.S. Marshals Service: Reports of Threats & Violence Against Federal Judicial Officials

    U.S. Marshals Service: Reports of Threats & Violence Against Federal Judicial Officials

    Number of Threats Received

    The survey asked respondents who were the targets of threats and violence to indicate the number of threats they received. Of 487 individuals who responded to that question, 392 (80.1 percent) received more than one threat during their legal career, 118 (24.2 percent) reported five to 10, and 43 (8.8 percent) reported receiving more than 10 threats during their legal career.

    When the Last Threat or Violence Occurred

    Respondents were also asked when they last experienced a work-related threat or when they were the victim of a physical assault. Of the 487 individuals who answered the question, the majority, 312 (64.3 percent), reported such acts had last occurred within the past five years. Moreover, 105 (21.6 percent) respondents reported last receiving a work-related threat or being the victim of a work-related physical assault within the past year. The results show that threats and assaults are relatively recent occurrences for many attorneys.

    Whether Incidents Were Reported to Police

    Respondents who reported being the victim of threats and violence were asked if it was reported to police. Of the 487 respondents, 200 (41.1 percent) indicated yes, while 222 (45.6 percent) said no. Another 65 respondents (13.4 percent) did not find the question applicable. In many circumstances, respondents did not feel the threat was credible. Some Wisconsin respondents reported that threats and violence are considered part of their job and expected to occur.

    Locations of Threats

    The survey asked Wisconsin respondents to identify where they experienced threats. Similar to nearly all of the other state surveys conducted, the majority of Wisconsin respondents identified the business office (55.7 percent) and the courthouse (53.3 percent) as the most common locations of threats and violence. Many respondents reported the occurrence of threats and violence at other locations, such as home (11.1 percent) and elsewhere (32.0 percent), including at jails or prisons, restaurants, stores, parking lots, public streets, mediation sites, and so on. Some of the reported incidents of threats and violence involved circumstances in which perpetrators appeared to know the victim’s daily routine.

    Several respondents described experiencing other forms of inappropriate behavior, including vandalism to vehicles (smashed windows, glued locks, damaged hood, flattened tires, vehicles keyed, wheels tampered with) and vandalism to their offices and residences (burglaries, window shot out, windows smashed, a burned or destroyed vehicle blocking office, smashed-in front door), and even attacks on a pet (potential poisoning of a dog).

    Relationship with the Perpetrator of Threats and Assaults

    Targets of threats and violence were asked to identify their association with the individual who most recently threatened or assaulted them. As in all of the other surveyed states, respondents reported that threats and violence were primarily perpetrated by opposing parties (43.9 percent) and the attorney’s own client (21.4 percent). Responses also show that threats and violence can occur from any individual involved in a legal case, including relatives or associates of a client (6.8 percent) and relatives or associates of an opposing party (5.1 percent).

    Twelve respondents (2.5 percent) reported that the most recent threat or assault was perpetrated by opposing counsel. Reported incidents of threats and violence from opposing counsel include the following:

    • [P]ushed and held against the wall of a courtroom by opposing counsel (male).

    • [C]rotch grabbed by opposing counsel before deposition.

    • A window at our office was smashed about three months ago, shortly after an altercation where opposing counsel stormed into my private office area and stood screaming in my face, inches from my face, and was escorted out with a threat to call police.

    • Following a deposition, opposing counsel pulled a gun out of his bag and started asking me questions about whether or not I knew anything about guns. It was a contentious case and I took this as a threat.

    • I once had an opposing counsel hang up the phone and drive several miles to my office to confront me because he was not pleased with the negotiation we were having. He arrived, and called me names. I told him the police were on their way, and he promptly left.

    Concern and Change in Conduct

    All respondents were asked whether they felt more concerned about their safety today than before the murder of attorney Sara Quirt Sann in March 2017. (Sann and three other people were killed in the Wausau area by the husband of one of Sann’s clients.) Of 1,006 responses to this question, 391 (38.9 percent) answered yes, while 615 (61.1 percent) answered no.

    Respondents who had received threats or had been the victim of physical assault were asked if such threats and violence had altered the way they conducted their legal business. Of 475 respondents to this question, only 33 (6.9 percent) reported that such incidents had affected their conduct a great deal, 217 (45.7 percent) said their conduct had been somewhat affected, and 225 (47.4 percent) said threats or violence did not at all alter the way they conducted business.

    Taking steps to protect oneself in the event of potential violence is just as important as recognizing the threat of potential violence. Respondents who had received threats or had been the victim of violence were asked to provide examples of changes they have made to reduce the risk of being a victim of violence. 329 respondents provided strategies and changes they have implemented to reduce the risk of becoming the victim of work-related violence. For additional discussion on avoiding threats and violence, see the article “Recognize & Avoid the Threat of Violence,” Wisconsin Lawyer (June 2017).


    This article shows that, contrary to some perceptions, a significant number of Wisconsin legal professionals experience a wide range of work-related threats and violence. Lawyers should not assume that similar threats and violence are entirely random or will happen only somewhere else to someone else. Recognizing the reality of potential violence in the practice of law is a first step in helping to avoid and prevent becoming the victim of work-related violence.

    Be Safe Out There: Resources for Staying Safe While Practicing Law

    “Sara’s Law” Gives Attorneys a Legal Avenue to Handle Threats

    Named “Sara’s Law” in memory of Schofield attorney Sara Quirt-Sann, the law creates a penalty enhancer for violence or threats of violence against lawyers and their families. Quirt-Sann was murdered by a client’s family member in 2017. Sara’s Law amends Wis. Stat. section 940.203, battery or threat to an officer of the court or law enforcement officer. A violation of the section is a Class H felony, punishable by imprisonment of up to six years, and a fine of up to $10,000. The law is the first of its kind in the nation.

    The law applies to anyone who intentionally causes bodily harm or threatens to cause bodily harm to the person or family member of a guardian ad litem, corporation counsel, or attorney, where the act or threat is in response to action taken by the guardian ad litem, attorney, or corporation counsel in a family law or other similar proceeding.

    Practice-related violence is a reality. Sara’s Law addresses one aspect of this reality. Taking a few simple steps to avoid and prevent violent situations address another. It is better to prevent harm from occurring than dealing with its aftermath.

    Prevent and Thwart Potentially Violent Situations

    In “Recognize & Avoid the Threat of Violence” (Wisconsin Lawyer, June 2017), Stephen D. Kelson, who conducts research on threats and violence against the legal profession, wrote that violence and aggression can take many different forms, including physical attacks, assaults, threats, vandalism, and sabotage.

    Kelson said although it is unrealistic to assume that all threats and violence against the legal profession can be prevented, there are several useful methods legal professionals can employ to avoid and prevent potential violence from clients, opposing parties, nonparties, and even from other attorneys. Two methods used to recognize warning signs of potential violence are the Profile Model and the Signs of Danger Model.

    The Profile Model identifies risk factors associated with violent behavior. Kelson listed 11 characteristics or behavioral warning signs of workplace violence from a potentially lethal individual.

    The Signs of Danger Model is based on studies that have shown that warning signs foreshadowed 85 percent of all workplace violence. The model helps lawyers to recognize signs of dangerous stress in individuals, particularly those who have already made threats.

    Please see the 2017 article for more detailed information.

    Preparation and Training Can Help Defuse a Bad Situation

    Every lawyer’s office, large or small, should have a written workplace violence policy statement setting forth preventive practices or a personal action plan to deal with violence. The State Bar of Arizona’s Emergency Security Procedures, below, are practical steps that any law office can implement.

    Coping with Threats and Violence

    For an angry or hostile customer or coworker:

    • Stay calm. Listen attentively.
    • Maintain eye contact.
    • Be courteous. Be patient.
    • Keep the situation in your control.

    For a person shouting, swearing, and threatening:

    • Signal a coworker, or supervisor, that you need help. (Use a duress alarm system or prearranged code word.)
    • Do not make any calls yourself.
    • Have someone call a guard or 911.

    For someone threatening you with a gun, knife, or other weapon:

    • Stay calm. Quietly signal for help. (Use a duress alarm or code word.)
    • Maintain eye contact.
    • Stall for time.
    • Keep talking – but follow instructions from the person who has the weapon.
    • Don’t risk harm to yourself or others.
    • Never try to grab a weapon.
    • Watch for a safe chance to escape to a safe area.

    Hostile Intruder

    • Do not sound the fire alarm.
    • Lock the windows and close blinds or curtains.
    • Stay away from windows.
    • Turn off lights and all audio equipment.
    • Keep everyone together.
    • Keep office secure until police arrive and give you directions.
    • If you are not in an office, try to get to an office.
    • Stay out of open areas and be as quiet as possible.

    Tips to form your plan. For an excellent, comprehensive outline you can use in forming your own plan, see “Don’t Be a Target: Practical Tips for Law Office Security.” Attorney Dan Bestul of Duxstad & Bestul S.C., Monroe, prepared this excellent resource for presentation to the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and he’s making it available to lawyers everywhere. The tips cover everything from floor plans/physical layout considerations, emergency response procedures, keeping meetings safe, and dealing with challenging clients and other individuals. Access the outline at

    Join the Discussion on Lawyer Safety at State Bar Seminar

    The 2019 Survey of Threats and Violence Against Wisconsin’s Legal Profession reveals that family law (15.9 percent) is the second highest primary practice area for threats to practitioners. Only criminal defense/prosecution was higher (25.7 percent).

    State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® and the Family Law Section are teaming up to present “Advanced Skills and Techniques for Family Law Practice.” Lawyer safety was top of mind when planning the seminar as, in addition to dealing with the bad conduct of opposing parties, this is an area of law in which emotions run high. Presenters will discuss steps lawyers can take to ensure their personal safety.

    What: Advanced Skills and Techniques for Family Law Practice
    When: Live seminar and webcast Oct. 30, 2019, with replays running through January
    Where: State Bar Center, Madison
    Credits: 7.5 credits, including 6.5 CLE and 1.0 LAU

    Meet Our Contributors

    What do you do for fun? What gets you excited?

    Stephen D. KelsonFor fun, I like to get out on Saturdays for a long morning run. The weather has finally warmed up in Utah, and I’m looking forward to running on a local river trail near my home.

    I’m a practicing attorney and mediator, and I’m involved with the Utah Council on Conflict Resolution (UCCR), an umbrella organization for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) providers in Utah. It sponsors brown-bag-lunch CLEs for the legal and ADR community and an outstanding yearly symposium for ADR providers in Utah. UCCR is a superb organization, and it’s fun to associate with such outstanding individuals in our community.

    Stephen D. Kelson, Christensen & Jensen PC, Salt Lake City, Utah.

    Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email Check out our writing and submission guidelines.


    1 Frederick S. Calhoun, Hunters and Howlers: Threats and Violence Against Federal Judicial Officials in the United States, 1789-1993, at 51 (U.S. Marshals Service, 1998).

    2 See Alan Silverleib, Report: Threats Against Federal Judges, Prosecutors Rise Sharply, (Jan. 4, 2010); U.S. Marshals Service, Judicial Security (2009); The Third Branch: Ensuring Safety and Security: An Interview with the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service (March 2011); U.S. Judicial Security, Judicial Security (2011).

    3 See Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Marshals Service, Fact Sheet: Judicial Security (2018).

    4 See Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Marshals Service. Fact Sheet: Judicial Security (2019).

    5 The State Bar of Wisconsin’s total membership of 16,010, including from out-of-state and inactive members, was invited to participate in the survey. Of those, the survey received a total of 1,151 responses (7.2 percent) For purposes of consistency with the other 28 statewide surveys, this article focuses on responses from the active, in-state members of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

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