Lawyers face increasing abuse at work

January 12, 2006, vol. 35, no. 1
Stuart Colcleugh

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Lawyer bashing has been joked about at least since Shakespeare's Henry VI, in which a wisecracking villain quips, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” But Karen Brown isn't laughing much these days.

Not since the SFU doctoral student surveyed B.C. lawyers as part of her master of arts in criminology thesis on violence and threats against lawyers and found that about 60 per cent had experienced work-related abuse ranging from verbal obscenities to outright death threats.

And while only one per cent of the 1,152 survey respondents said they had actually been physically assaulted in the line of duty, almost one in 10 said they had been approached inappropriately on the job.

“It's definitely no joke,” says Brown, echoing the Canadian Bar Association, which last summer issued a personal safety handbook to its members citing increasing violence against lawyers as one of the most urgent issues the profession faces.

Brown's survey found that family and criminal defence lawyers and prosecutors are at the greatest risk. But lawyers of every stripe reported threats and/or violence, including a surprising 78 per cent of administrative or corporate attorneys and 63 per cent of labour/human rights lawyers.

A roughly equal number of male and female lawyers reported threatening incidents, but more female lawyers said they had altered their business conduct as a result.
Issues involving “money, family matters or serious and potential lifestyle changes,” trigger most incidents, Brown says.

But the 25 lawyers she interviewed in addition to the survey offered more general reasons for the problem, including frustration with the legal process and the judicial system, a misunderstanding of Canadian laws and the inability of people to blame themselves for their legal problems.

Brown also points to the public's increased awareness of lawyers in recent years - whether in commercials, in the news or on TV crime dramas - theorizing that familiarity has bred contempt for the profession.

“The legal profession has moved away from long established traditions and canons of professional ethics, thus vacating a professional paradigm and adopting a business approach, which may explain why the public doesn't respect the profession like it used to.”
Brown worked in law firms for more than 20 years and says that experience has given her unique insight into this phenomenon.

But given the survey results would she ever want to be a lawyer? “Nope, not a chance,” she says. “Never.” She is now working on her doctorate in criminology.

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