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Joel Kurtzberg, a mild-mannered litigation associate at Cahill, Gordon & Reindell, is a slender fellow of average height. The man who threatened to kill him is loud, anti-Semitic and stands 6’4″. Harvard Law School, which is Kurtzberg’s alma mater, failed to prepare him for rude encounters in the clanging halls of family court. Nonetheless, he recently worked under such circumstances, as pro bono counsel on behalf of a woman formerly married to a violent man. According to his contemporaneous case file notes, Kurtzberg was informed in a spittle-flying tirade outside the courtroom, “You’re a Jew lawyer and you’re winning because you’re in the Jew courts and the Jew judges are ruling in your favor. You don’t know who I am. I can have your license removed. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I know people. I know where you live.” Indeed, the man consulted the telephone directory and later dialed Kurtzberg’s Manhattan apartment to fulminate further. Kurtzberg was afraid — his building does not have a doorman — and the fear was hardly groundless. Among other things, his nemesis was accused of assaulting his ex-wife with a shoe and attempting to rape her. The woman’s co-workers, according to Kurtzberg’s notes, told of the man’s several job-site appearances and of his customary opening gambit, “Anybody seen my wife? She’s been with another man. She’s a lesbian!” How did Kurtzberg handle the difficult opposing litigant? “First, I thought it was important to be persistent, tenacious and zealous,” said Kurtzberg, 34, whose pro bono work came under the aegis of Sanctuary for Families. “I did not want to convey to [the opposing litigant] that his threats were going to deter me. This guy had been bullying people forever, including my client.” That was a sound impulse, said Roland G. Riopelle, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York now in private criminal law practice at Sercarz & Riopelle. “You should absolutely not lose your temper, you’ve got to stay calm,” said Riopelle. “If you’re concerned that the threats would escalate in any way, you should refer them to law enforcement.” Kurtzberg came close to doing so. “I’d been conferring with prosecutors and the court administrator,” he said. At one point, he seriously considered their invitation to file for an order of protection. “I’d also got counsel from my firm, and from the attorneys at Sanctuary, who were incredibly helpful. In case something did happen, they would be able to say, ‘He came and told us.’ “ CONCERNS BEYOND VIOLENCE Kurtzberg had concerns beyond the possibility of something violently untoward, suggested Harold A. Mayerson of the family law firm Mayerson Stutman. “There’s a joke in my business: I don’t do crazies,” said Mayerson. “But — you can’t pick who you’re opposing. So at a certain level, we’re sitting ducks.” If threatened lawyers take defensive legal action against troublesome opposing litigants, Mayerson said, they run two risks: a judge may discharge them from the case, and the trouble-maker might file a complaint with the Ethics Committee of the New York State Bar Association. “Then when you go to renew your malpractice insurance, they say there’s a claim against you,” said Mayerson. “You tell them it’s a false claim. They say it’s still a claim. This goes on and on.” Mayerson said it is important for both lawyers and clients to take threats seriously. “But when it’s beyond the pale, you have an obligation to seek an order of protection. And you should ask for sanctions,” he said. “Some of these people will understand the issue of money more than other things.” Marie Richardson, managing attorney for the civil division of the Legal Aid Society of New York, acknowledged that the atmosphere of family court is choked with volatile emotion. Threats may occur, but violence “doesn’t happen often,” she said. “Most of the time, even though people are upset and angry with you as a lawyer, most don’t follow through and take any action,” said Richardson, who had a private career in family law before joining Legal Aid. “They eventually move on.” Still, Richardson offered some hard-won wisdom to Kurtzberg and others who volunteer their services in the heated arena of family court. “You allow a person to be vocal, yet you yourself use a lower tone — a controlling tone,” she said. “You try to help people deal with their frustrations. You don’t get too close, you never turn your back on them, you don’t point your fingers.” She also advised that lawyers should know the locations of all courthouse exits. “You have to be safe,” she said. “You can’t help your client if you’re not safe.” SAFETY TRAINING Legal Aid attorneys in both the civil and criminal divisions, as well as support staff, receive periodic safety training from the Cornell University School of Industrial Relations. The Office of Court Administration operates what OCA spokesman David Bookstaver calls a “threat assessment unit” to deal with rudeness shown to judges. Bookstaver declined to provide details. By consulting with prosecutors and court officials, Kurtzberg felt he had sufficiently insured his safety. And borrowing from his schoolteacher experience in New Orleans — “I’d been threatened by mouthy kids a number of times” — he determined that the angry man was more lip than clout. “It was a judgment call,” he said. Had it been Robert Knightly, a veteran Legal Aid criminal defense lawyer and a retired New York City police officer who is built like a dum-dum bullet, the judgment might have been different. When confronted by threats, said Knightly, “I threaten them back, sometimes physically.” Knightly lowered his tone significantly: “Or else I remind them they ought not talk like that because I might dedicate some of my future to making certain that they should be locked up for 20 or 30 years on top of whatever the judge is going to do to them.” To which Riopelle the criminal lawyer added, “You don’t go into this line of work if you’re not up for the occasional thrill.”

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