The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Nobody’s safe’: Lawyers take precautions after Ga. attorney’s killing

The law office of Douglas Lewis in Lawrenceville, Ga. (Google Maps)
4 min

After a nine-hour mediation last week, attorney Candace M. Williams returned to her office and started to scroll through dozens of unread emails. One of them — a news alert about a man police say fatally shot his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer — sent her into a panic.

Questions swirled in her mind in her Gainesville, Ga., office: Could something like that happen to her? Were her will and life insurance prepared if it did? Should she buy a gun for protection?

“It was a really stop-in-your-shoes kind of moment,” Williams, 48, told The Washington Post, “where you were really rethinking life.”

Last week, police charged suspect Allen Tayeh, 65 with fatally shooting attorney Douglas Lewis at his Lawrenceville, Ga., law office and then setting the building on fire. Court records show Lewis represented Tayeh’s ex-wife in a divorce case this year. Emily Gilbert, Tayeh’s attorney, declined to comment when reached by email Thursday.

Lewis was alone in his office on Dec. 7, police say. The case has some attorneys — especially those who work contentious divorce and child custody cases — once again worrying for their safety in a field where losses in court can sometimes lead to real-life threats or violence. When Utah attorney Stephen D. Kelson surveyed lawyers between 2006 and 2018, at least 32.5 percent of respondents from 28 states reported they had experienced violence or threats of violence.

“Nobody’s safe,” said Williams, who practices family law. “That’s the bottom line.”

Court documents show a jury approved the Tayehs’ divorce in August, and the court ordered Tayeh in October to pay his ex-wife more than $28,000 in attorney’s fees. On Dec. 1, Lewis wrote in a motion to the court that Tayeh had not paid the fees. Lewis was killed six days later.

Kathryn M. Schrader, an attorney and judge from Duluth, Ga., worked multiple cases with Lewis. The 60-year-old said Lewis was an example of the ideal lawyer: genuine, patient and dedicated to smoothing over conflict. Lewis, who raised three children, also coached local youth sports.

In the last week, Schrader has become vigilant about locking doors and monitoring her office’s camera.

“We’re all coming to grips with the fact that this is what the world has come to,” Schrader said, “where people think it’s okay to shoot somebody if you get mad at them.”

After learning about Lewis’s death some 30 miles away, Williams enforced new precautions. Her law firm’s staff now departs the office hours earlier instead of working past midnight. She parks near lights and is more cautious about hosting in-person meetings.

Williams said she bought 15 stun guns and pepper-spray cans for her staff and scheduled self-defense training next week. That is not how Williams envisioned the job as a teenager, when she vowed to assist children after her parents underwent a messy divorce. She said she doesn’t want her teenage daughter to pursue law.

Similar concerns prompted Nicole Hunt Jackson to shift from practicing family law to personal injury law nine years ago. On multiple occasions, police had to escort the West Palm Beach, Fla., attorney from the courthouse after difficult divorce hearings, in which opposing parties berated her.

“Those cases are heightened in terms of emotions,” said Jackson, 53. “People, they just seem to think and behave [toward lawyers] as if it’s personal.”

Williams also has noticed a need for increased security in the past decade. She began to recognize her job’s dangers roughly 11 years ago, when she said an opposing party attempted to strike her with a Ford Bronco in a courthouse parking lot.

While Williams said she and colleagues have received violent threats, it’s difficult for her to consider what could happen if someone followed through.

“You’re focused on your career and helping families and children … to have your life on the line,” Williams said, “and to look at your daughter and say, ‘I may not be here tomorrow.’”