Given a major event in my practice, and my life, I was asked to comment on what I learned about keeping myself and others in the office safe from violence.
On September 29, 2003 while attending a hearing at the Hennepin County Government Center I was shot in the neck and my client was shot 4 times. She died at HCMC. The shooter was from the opposing party and my client’s cousin.
Unfortunately, since then there have been other significant attacks upon colleagues in Minnesota
- June 2010: An enraged party to a custody dispute walked into the office of Fridley attorney Terri Melcher, who had been representing the attacker’s former spouse. Melcher was stabbed over a dozen times in her head, upper body and throat, requiring 137 stitches.
- December 2011: Three people, including Cook County Attorney Timothy Scannell, were shot in the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais by a defendant who had recently been convicted of third-degree criminal sexual assault.
- July 2015: Ramsey County Public Defender Susan Scarborough was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury after a teenage client she was representing beat her to the point of unconsciousness in a conference room where the two were meeting.
- April 2016: Paralegal Chase Passaeur was shot and killed in his St. Paul office by an enraged client who thought the paralegal was his attorney.
After my shooting I heard many stories from other attorneys about incidences of potentially serious acts of violence against them, their staff, or their colleagues. Most of the stories involved opposing party or very negative extended family relationships. I’ve heard stories of direct or subtle physical treats and damage to property (knifing of car tires or breaking into opposing party’s car for example).
Some things I learned from these past events. We are dealing with people. And not all people are rational or logical; even if they don’t have a recognized mental illness. Too many people perceive their rights, their powers and their immunity from the law as absolute. Many others simply don’t think – they just act in the moment. They are driven by emotions; negative emotions! They just react; they lash out. They feel they are entitled to revenge. They feel physical violence is their only option.
This should be a permanent concern during one’s entire career. What rational steps can Bar members take to address this perpetual issue? Don’t get paranoid and overreact. But do take a few reasonable steps in your daily routine to minimize harm from some of those potential attackers. This is especially true for attorneys practicing family law, probate litigation and possibly criminal law. (I don’t’ practice in that area so can’t really appreciate the potential risks to those practitioners. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have faced similar situations.)
A FEW SIMPLE REMINDERS:
- Listen to your gut! If something “just doesn’t feel right” don’t ignore it. Stop, analyze the situation, review the past history and immediate behavior of that person. What do others in the know say about that person?
- Be aware of your surroundings. Once you figure out “something just ain’t right” stay alert. Maybe begin a diary of events (date, time, description). Nothing monumental, but a good real time history. (Cops may want that info in the future.)
- Do some quick research. Does the person you are concerned about have some history that indicates dangerous behavior? Sources can include your client, maybe friends of your client and past criminal or civil court records.
- Take reasonable safety precautions. Consider safety in the office, car, or home. Maybe family. Consider “safety in numbers”. Should office doors be locked. Maybe security lights and cameras. Don’t overdo it. Just be reasonable.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Critically important to let office mates and staff know of your concerns. Important because staff are often the front line. Maybe your family should be put on notice. Consider contacting building security and or the police for advice. Of course, contact police for any immediate problem. Also, feel free to post concerns to the Bar’s Listserv. Many smart people are there and might be able to help. If you are concerned that a client is trying to push you to “cross the line” maybe obtain an advisory opinion from the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. That could give you extra support when you decline to cross that line. And
of course, if you are feeling stressed out by what’s going on call Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, (651) 646-5590. They may be able to help defuse the situation.
Todd C. Scott, VP of Risk Management, Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company recently wrote an extensive article for the ABA on violence. I highly recommend you read the article. April 4, 2019 ABA article by “Identifying Violent Clients”