Survey conducted by Steve Kelson. Results included 28,530 attorneys from 28 states, collected between 2006 and 2018. 3,468 of the respondents were family law attorneys. Graphic designed by Ravyn Cullor for The Business Journal.
Written by Ravyn Cullor
In May 2006, a Fresno family law attorney was shot in the neck leaving his office. While no one has been arrested or charged, he suspects, like an uncounted number of attorneys, he was targeted due to a divorce case.
That attorney was L. Kim Aguirre, and nearly 15 years later, he can’t be sure of who shot him, but he suspects it could have been one of a number of opposing parties he was dealing with in his family law practice.
After the shooting, he said 13 clients called saying their spouse might be involved.
Aguirre said while he had initially thought he’d been shot in the head, he was hit in the flesh of the back of his neck and ultimately wasn’t seriously injured.
Utah-based family law attorney Steve Kelson began studying threats and assaults made against attorneys, particularly those in family law, in college and said Aguirre is far from alone, even in violent assaults
“Lawyers practicing family law are first or second up there as far as threats and assaults go, after criminal law,” Kelson said. “People care most about their life, liberty and property, and when they feel like they lose those things it raises emotions.”
Kelson said research on the topic is scarce, but he has been conducting surveys for years and has found that around 40% of all attorneys who responded had been threatened or assaulted, but that number jumped to 54% for those primarily practicing family law.
While Kelson’s surveys do include violent assaults, they also indicate attorneys more often receive threats or are inappropriately approached in their office, at court, at home and elsewhere.
During an office renovation, Fresno attorney Glenn Wilson said an associate of an opposing party got into his own office and called him from the office phone. The intruder threatened to find and kill Wilson if he didn’t drop out of the case.
As a former law enforcement officer, Wilson said he was used to being threatened in relation to his work and, as an attorney had received a number of them.
The threat from his office phone was the first he reported to the police, and caused him to upgrade security systems and keep a secured weapon at the office, he said.
All three attorneys said the nature of family law and divorce cases drive the rates of threats and violence against counsel. Unlike a number of other areas of practice, Aguirre said divorce cases are emotional because they can threaten to remove one’s children, property and way of life.
In Kelson’s research, the opposing party was significantly more likely to be the assailant, and family law attorneys saw threats and assaults by opposing parties more often than other lawyers. It also showed threats and assaults were usually made by men.
“You see the weirdest things in family law,” Kelson said. “There is stalking, people showing up at an attorney’s home, sometimes threats are even directed towards family members.”
The surveys allowed attorneys to give specific details on experiences they had, which ranged from death threats, aggravated assaults, attempted hiring of a hitman and even a threatening call after the opposing party murdered his wife.
The surveys did not include written accounts of murders of family law attorneys, but Kelson outlined a few in an academic paper he wrote on the subject that was published by the Minnesota Family Law Institute.
Fresno attorney Judy Soley was killed in a Bass Lake restaurant in 2011 during a meal with her client when the client’s estranged husband shot both women. The shooter later died by suicide during a stand off with law enforcement.
Soley’s daughter, family law attorney Lesley Soley, declined to comment for this article.
While threats and assaults are prevalent in family law, Kelson said the subject is little discussed, and under researched.
“They don’t really talk about that kind of stuff in law school,” Kelson said. “Attorneys don’t really talk about it if they get threats, whether they think it would make them look weak or just because they don’t want bad publicity.”
Wilson said he only recalls the topic being discussed in law school in relation to penalties an attorney could face if they were to disclose certain information publicly or to law enforcement.
After spending years feeling hyper-vigilant, particularly because his assailant was never discovered, Aguirre said he’s hesitant to discuss his experience because the incident didn’t change his practice and he’s more concerned now of it defining him as an attorney.
“It’s not something I like to dwell on,” Aguirre said. “It’s not something you want your whole career to be based on, ‘you’re the one who got shot.’”