Law Practice Management

Locked doors, safety training and remote car starters go a long way to protect lawyers, expert says


After this week’s courthouse shootings in Delaware as well as other recent high-profile slayings including the execution-style killing of a Texas prosecutor and an opponent’s fatal attack on a lawyer and client leaving a mediation session in Arizona, many are wondering what can be done to stop such violence.

The jury is still out on whether attacks in a legal setting are on the upswing. The executive director of the state bar of Arizona, John F. Phelps, says in an opinion piece published by the Arizona Republic that a survey done by a Utah lawyer suggests there has been an increase. And, following the death of lawyer Mark Hummels, who was killed last month by an opposing party in a Phoenix mediation matter, the president of the State Bar of Arizona plans to ask its 22,000 members whether they have been threatened or attacked.

Anthony C. Roman, who heads a New York firm that does investigative work for corporations and insurance companies, tells the ABA Journal he believes there is simply more publicity about such attacks than there used to be.

Regardless of who’s right, however, there can be no disagreement that any level of violence against attorneys and others involved in the legal system is unacceptable. There’s also little, if any question, about who’s most likely to be targeted: Criminal defense lawyers, family law attorneys, litigators and others involved in dispute resolutions in which individuals’ emotions may run high.

Roman says his firm is regularly called upon to offer safety advice to attorneys and law firms, as well as other businesses, and he had a number of suggestions about best practices that should be implemented. However, privacy advocates may quail at some of his ideas.

First, he says, lawyers involved in any kind of trial or dispute resolution practice need to understand that they—and potentially their families—are in a special-risk category of potential targets for harassment or worse.

Second, it’s important to be aware of one’s surroundings and alert to signs and symptoms of agitation, so they can be dealt with before they escalate. Many people do these things instinctively, but training can help individuals act optimally.

Safety measures for law firms, like courthouses, include secure doors that are not open to the public unless and until individuals are OK’d by reception personnel, Roman says. Once buzzed in, visitors should always be escorted and should wear a color-coded badge, and law office workers at all levels should be trained to politely question anyone who is not wearing a visitor’s badge.

Optimally, both courthouses and law firms would have perimeter cameras equipped with smart technology that allows them to recognize license plates and faces.

In addition to identifying specific individuals who are thought to pose a threat to the facility in question, smart technology also allows cameras to check visitors against databases. These can include not only known violent offenders and terrorists but white-collar offenders such as money-launderers, Roman says, pointing out that law firms need to know their clients and can be at risk if they don’t.

In the office and at outside meetings, particularly when adverse parties are present, efforts should be made to recognize and defuse situations in which anyone seems to be getting agitated, and there should be a plan for handling such issues. Taking a break, or perhaps even recessing until a future date, can make a big difference. If need be, unarmed or armed security can be arranged for the next meeting.

“Those very simple things can go a very long way in avoiding many of the casualties and injuries we see against attorneys,” Roman says.

He recommends background investigations of parties before negotiations begin as an excellent way to identify whether there could be a safety issue, based on a previous history of problem behavior.

Signs that an employee is severely stressed or, say, making threatening remarks also should be addressed. “Those kind of things are often ignored and pooh-poohed,” Roman says. “They shouldn’t be.”

Dealt with early on, such situations can much more easily be defused, he says, when a problem is “in its very early stages and hasn’t escalated emotionally.”

Outside the office, lawyers should have remote starters for their vehicles, he continues, and quality security systems in their homes that alert when someone crosses the perimeter of the property, accesses a door, a window or the basement, or breaks a window. Systems that transmit to a cell tower are more secure than those that use only a land line, since a land line can be cut to prevent an alarm from being sent.

Not only adult family members but children can be trained in a matter-of-fact way to be alert to their surroundings, know their location at all times and have a cellphone immediately at hand. That also goes for their nannies or any other caregivers, and schools should be advised to take care, too.

With his own children, such awareness “just became a part of their life,” Roman said. “They were never particularly afraid, they were just informed.”

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Women gunned down at Delaware courthouse were there for child-support hearing”

ABAJournal.com: “Investigators of prosecutor’s slaying are still seeking suspects, a motive”

ABAJournal.com: “Dead suspect in shooting of mediation opponents was litigious, had anger issues, lawyer says”

Billings Gazette: “Lawmakers, judges quarrel over courthouse gun regulation”

Fox News: “Massachusetts police officer suspended after leaving gun in courthouse bathroom”

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