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What Can Turn a Lawyer into a Target?

December 10, 2023

What Can Turn a Lawyer into a Target?

Practicing law can be a perilous profession. While attorneys have a duty to zealously advocate for their clients, that advocacy can sometimes come at a cost. Lawyers may face threats, harassment, or even violence when taking on controversial cases or representing unpopular clients. Unfortunately, attacks on lawyers are not uncommon in countries around the world.

Why Lawyers Can Become Targets

There are a few key reasons why lawyers often end up in the crosshairs:

Representing Controversial Clients

Attorneys who take on notorious or unpopular clients can face public backlash. For example, lawyers who have represented alleged terrorists, mobsters, or war criminals have endured criticism, threats, and harassment. While everyone has the right to legal counsel, lawyers are sometimes viewed as complicit in their clients’ alleged misdeeds. Defending the legal rights of controversial figures can be a thankless task.

Challenging Powerful Interests

Lawyers who confront powerful governmental, corporate, or criminal entities also risk provoking a backlash. Attorneys involved in high-profile lawsuits against big companies, whistleblower cases against governments, or prosecutions of organized crime figures make formidable enemies. Those with a vested interest in the status quo often push back aggressively.

Seeking Justice in Politically Charged Cases

Human rights attorneys and those handling politically charged criminal cases often face government persecution or pressure. Authoritarian regimes in particular have frequently targeted lawyers representing dissidents and activists. Similarly, litigators in polarized cases can become lightning rods for political anger on both sides.

Fighting Corruption

Anti-corruption lawyers face peril around the world. Investigating and prosecuting graft among powerful elites and government officials is incredibly risky in many countries. Attorneys trying to tackle state corruption have been subjected to violent reprisals, even assassination.

Forms of Attack Lawyers May Face

The harassment lawyers face takes many forms, both legal and illegal:

Legal Harassment

Abusive lawsuits, civil contempt motions, formal bar complaints, and other legal actions may be used to attack and distract opposing counsel. While sometimes valid, legal harassment can cross ethical lines and become a means of intimidation. This forces attorneys to divert time and resources to defending themselves.

Reputational Attacks

Vilification campaigns in traditional and social media aim to damage attorneys’ reputations. Lawyers may face false accusations, edited media clips portraying them negatively, doxing of personal details online, fake reviews, and other means of discrediting them.

Threats and Intimidation

Hate mail, abusive phone calls, threats of violence against attorneys and their loved ones, stalking, and harassment are regrettably commonplace. Female lawyers and attorneys of color often face more severe and sexualized harassment. Threats often spike around politically charged cases or trials.

Physical Violence

At the extreme end, attorneys also face outright physical attacks as retaliation for their work. Beatings, kidnappings, arson, car bombings, shootings, and even assassinations have targeted lawyers worldwide, especially in countries with weak rule of law. Even in advanced democracies, violence against lawyers still occurs.

Why Targeting Lawyers Undermines Justice

Attacks on the legal profession undermine justice and the rule of law in any society. Lawyers play an essential role in upholding civil liberties and human rights. When attorneys cannot safely do their jobs, legal systems cannot function properly.

Eroding Fair Trials

If lawyers fear retaliation, they cannot properly defend their clients in court. Defendants lose experienced counsel, undercutting the right to a fair trial. Intimidation of lawyers obstructs the path to justice.

Silencing Dissent

Targeting lawyers has a chilling effect on legal advocacy. Attacks dissuade attorneys from taking on sensitive, controversial cases. This leaves dissenting voices legally defenseless against state power. It also weakens oversight of institutions.

Breeding Corruption

Without courageous lawyers investigating and prosecuting misconduct, corruption goes unchecked. Intimidating anti-graft attorneys only encourages more brazen criminality among elites. This entrenches corruption further across society.In an ideal justice system, lawyers must have the freedom and security to represent clients without fear of reprisal. Attacking or threatening attorneys ultimately signals a breakdown in the rule of law. It demonstrates that powerful actors operate above accountability.

Protecting the Legal Profession

Stemming attacks on lawyers requires commitment across society – from politicians, bar associations, fellow attorneys, watchdog groups, and ordinary citizens.

Enacting Protective Laws

Nations should pass laws that explicitly recognize legal work’s value to society and criminalize attacks on lawyers. Where attacks occur, political leaders must condemn them forcefully and ensure robust, swift investigations.

Increasing Security Measures

Heightened courthouse security protects lawyers and judges during legal proceedings. Governments can also offer emergency relocation funding for attorneys facing threats. Individual law firms may need to invest more in cybersecurity as well to guard client data.

Expanding Support Networks

Bar associations should expand assistance programs for lawyers facing harassment, providing counseling, advocacy, and peer support. Legal groups can also offer pro bono legal help to attorneys caught in abusive lawsuits intended to overwhelm them.

Boosting Public Awareness

More education is needed to highlight lawyers’ role enabling society to function fairly – along with the dangers attorneys face. Civil society groups can lead social media campaigns celebrating legal advocacy, while condemning attacks.

Speaking Out Against Intimidation

The legal community has an obligation to publicly criticize harassment of fellow attorneys wherever it occurs. Such pressure deters further attacks and signals that security threats will not impede lawyers’ work. Silence only enables further intimidation.No lawyer should fear physical harm for defending clients’ rights or upholding justice. With coordinated efforts across society, the legal profession can reinforce protections against harassment and violence. Safeguarding attorneys’ safety strengthens the rule of law for all.



Attacks on lawyers threaten democracy and justiceProtecting the protectors: security for lawyers at risk

Additional Reading

Harassment and violence against lawyers: A global phenomenon with grave consequences – International Bar Association reportAttacks on Justice – UN Special Rapporteur report – Details threats to judicial independence globally

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