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What to Do When Your Client Threatens to Hurt You

Charity A Anastasio


  • Research shows that lawyers and judges receive threats of violence and experience violence from clients as well as from other third parties. Unfortunately, threats are on the rise.
  • There are actions you can take to address a client or someone else who threatens you, such as staying calm, securing your workplaces in the office and at home, and staying safe during depositions.
  • Lawyers may feel residual loyalty to clients or colleagues, so they do not want to press charges; do not stay silent. Many incidents could have been prevented if authorities had been warned about an imminent threat.
What to Do When Your Client Threatens to Hurt You
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This seems far-fetched for some newer lawyers, but research shows that lawyers and judges do get threats of violence and experience violence, not just from clients but from opposing parties and other third parties. Threats are also on the rise, according to Stephen D. Kelson, a Utah lawyer who has researched the topic in more than 29 states over the last two decades. Certain practice areas see the greatest risk—family law and criminal law—but the potential exists for all of us. And if we have practiced for a few years and are honest with ourselves, most of us can think back to one or two interactions that scared us. Mine was a voice mail from a previously pleasant client who was under an extraordinary amount of stress and lashed out at me. He apologized later, but he severely shook me up in the moment, and I never felt quite as safe after.

So, what do you do when a client or someone else threatens you (or your staff, for that matter)? First, don’t panic. Your heart is racing, and you are feeling shaky, but there are clear actions you can take to address this problem.

Don’t Underreact

With a client, we sometimes feel residual loyalty to them and do not want to press charges when the police arrive after an incident, for example. Often, people will apologize when they have crossed a line, and we can think the issue is resolved. But there is no obligation to accept their apology and forget what they did. Realize that the perpetrator is usually experiencing a great loss, and they have displaced their anger about it onto you or your employees. That may not be resolved in them easily. You can have compassion while still reserving your trust for the time being.

Call the police and make a report. If you have a picture of the individual or a detailed description, put it at the front desk with strict orders not to let this person back into the work space. If you must meet with the individual, do so in a secure location with people at the ready to act if the need arises. A true solo without staff or front desk may choose to lock the door and only see clients by appointment or at court during the time of heightened security.

Withdrawing from a case after a client threatens you is smart. Your withdrawal must comply with applicable procedural rules and be limited to only the facts you must tell the court to withdraw. Look at your jurisdiction’s equivalent rule to ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3: Candor Toward the Tribunal and Rule 1.6: Confidentiality of Information, as well as other applicable rules on privacy, attorney-client privilege, and applicable state, federal, or local rules relating to your case type and client, to clarify what facts you can share and what you cannot share. A call to your state bar ethics counsel or colleague can help clarify things, too. This will be a jurisdictional-specific issue, but generally, stopping physical harm is an exception to the confidentiality rule, and withdrawal is permitted (indeed, mandatory in some instances) in most states.

Secure Your Workspaces in the Office and at Home

If you haven’t been doing security training at your office, now is the time to start. Meet with your staff, if you have any, and discuss where all the exits are and what code word you will use to signify if this person arrives. Set up protocols, such as a barrier between the front and back office, visitor passes, and escorting all visitors in and out of your work area. Consider installing silent (or loud) alarms and better lighting in dark parking areas or sections of the building and arranging a buddy system or security for employees leaving at dark hours. Many police departments will do a free walk-through of your office to identify risks, and some do trainings on active shooter and security measures as well. Train your staff at least annually on emergency procedures. There are resources to help you with this endeavor at the end of this article.

When securing a home office, discuss these matters with your family as well. Prepare a plan for emergencies of all types. Know the exits, have off-site meeting places if you get separated, and talk about how to behave and how to call the police in case of an intruder or threat. The incident always produces chaos, but trained people naturally fall back on that training in an emergency.

Stay Safe During Depositions

Another tense moment can be a deposition of an opposing party or interested witness. Say you are sitting across from an angry spouse who is glaring at you, and you think they have a weapon. You may try de-escalation techniques, such as lowering and slowing your speech, not an using aggressive tone or physical posture, showing empathy and ignoring confrontational questions, setting boundaries and limits with the individual but giving them choices within those boundaries, and giving time for their cognitive mind to come back online and the situation to cool down.

But, again, don’t underreact. If you don’t feel safe, end the deposition quickly and definitively: “I have to call this deposition to a close. There’s another matter I must address. We can reschedule at a later date.” Get out of there and schedule the next one in a more secure and controlled location. You can hire off-duty police officers or other security personnel to guard you at an hourly rate.

Don’t Stay Silent

Finally, if you know something is going sideways, don’t stay silent. Stephen D. Kelson has said, “It is surprising how many incidents have actually been prevented because a lawyer or professional picked up the phone and warned about an imminent threat.” If, for example, clients say they going to go hurt opposing counsel or you see them stalking their office, say something. Kelson says, “It makes a real difference.”

Violence is the exception in a law practice. But it shouldn’t be thought impossible. Listen to your staff’s concerns and take them seriously, too. On average, 2 million incidents of workplace violence are reported annually. Workplace violence is defined as acts or threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, and other threatening or disruptive behavior. It can be threats, verbal abuse, or physical assault, all the way up to homicide. Employers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to offer employees a safe workplace if the danger can be mitigated (i.e., if “there is a feasible method to abate the hazard”). Make it a priority to care for your own safety and the safety of others, and don’t be hard on yourself if an angry voice mail shocks you. That’s a natural human instinct that has been protecting us for millennia.

Further Reading

This article contains the individual opinions and perspectives of the author, and does not represent the official opinions or statements of the American Bar Association. It is not intended to be legal advice, or be relied upon as legal advice.