Family Law

The job is killing them: Family lawyers experience threats, violence

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Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich

Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich: “He was a criminal law attorney who was acting as an attorney for his best friend in this arena. I guess he just let his closeness to his friend get the better of him when he was not prevailing.” Photo by Kyle Weller.

Use Your Words

Kelson’s surveys show threats are most common at the office. For that reason, Huelgo suggests lawyers think about what opportunities they have to make it more secure. Bailey of the ABA Family Law Section says he locks the door when he’s in his office alone and keeps an eye out when he’s concerned about someone.

Zollman, the solo in Sonoma County, suggests lawyers not invite clients they have concerns about into the office at all—or have someone else present if they do. If that’s not possible, he says, meet them at the courthouse, where they’ll be screened by security and will be near law enforcement officers.

But outside the courthouse is a different matter, particularly because court dates make it easy to find out when targeted parties will be in the area. To address that concern, Huelgo of the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence suggests talking to court security personnel about alternative entrances. In a higher-risk case, she says, litigants sometimes ask for an escort. Zollman, who’s taller than 6 feet, sometimes provides his help to colleagues if he’s worried about their safety. Choi of My Occupational Defense says you should never be paying more attention to your smartphone than your surroundings in high-risk situations.

Huelgo says other courthouse personnel can be helpful, too. “A very common practice is to ask the court to detain the batterer for some amount of time,” she says. “We’ve had clerks that detain court papers in order to give the victim and the attorney an opportunity to leave.”

For lawyers who can’t avoid a hostile confrontation, psychologist Tabashneck suggests that being pleasant and polite, while it might be difficult, can help. Zollman says he listens to upset parents sympathetically.

“I just sort of say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot that you’ve just explained to me. And you rightfully are entitled to all of these emotions,’ ” he says. “ ‘But … I would just encourage you to take deep breaths, as many times as you need to, to just kind of lower your own stress. Because you want to do the best job you can to explain your position.’ ”

Choi teaches his students to try de-escalating situations verbally, using the kind of script often used by doctors and law enforcement. Those scripts emphasize listening, asking about the other person’s concerns, giving sympathy or apologies where appropriate, and providing options to solve the problem.

“People will resort to violence if they realize they don’t have another option,” he says. “So a lot of the scripting that we teach people is to present the aggressor with other options.”

Choi recommends lawyers who want to handle physical confrontations invest substantial time in training, such as martial arts, which he offers. Under stress, he says, people are more likely to remember the training if it’s been drilled into them. For those who’d rather not, he suggests creating or finding escape routes. On the street, this could mean ducking into an open business. In the office, he says, there should be more than one way to leave every room.

Jimmy Choi

Jimmy Choi: “People will resort to violence if they realize they don’t have another option. So a lot of the scripting that we teach people is to present the aggressor with other options.”

At Tlusty’s office in Wausau, her firm has responded to the murders with substantial new security protocols, such as only taking clients by appointment and buzzing them in rather than allowing them to walk in. VanOoyen, the judicial coordinator in Marathon County, says a lot of lawyers in the area have taken similar steps—especially those who practice family law.

VanOoyen says the courthouse where she works also has drastically tightened security. Before March 2017, the courthouse had no permanent metal detector—just a portable one used for specific high-profile cases. Now there’s permanent security at the front, and the building’s other entrance is closed. Not everybody likes it, she says, but she feels much safer.

“We still get people that come in, and they’re angry and upset and what have you,” VanOoyen says. “However, at least now I don’t have to worry about, ‘Gee, do they have a gun in their purse?’ “



Steps to protect against violent clients

While family law practitioners face violence more often than other lawyers, office security and personal safety are important issues for all attorneys. Practicing lawyers and experts in the field of workplace violence have suggestions on how to protect yourself and your practice from a potentially violent client. The following ideas came from interviews with attorneys Steve Kelson, Stephen Zollman, Vivian Huelgo and Allen Bailey; psychologist Stephanie Tabashneck, and safety experts Jimmy Choi and Ian Harris.

Jimmy Choi: In the office, make sure there’s more than one way to get out of every room.

Stephen Zollman: Meet with clients who concern you at the courthouse so that they have to go through security and a bailiff is close by.

Vivian Huelgo: If you’re worried about an opposing party confronting you outside the courthouse, talk to courthouse security about alternative entrances. Ask for an escort (from courthouse security) if you feel you need it. You can sometimes get clerks to drag their feet on paperwork to keep a batterer busy while you leave.

Zollman, Stephanie Tabashneck: Listen to upset clients with sympathy.

Choi: Recognize that it is possible that somebody who is upset enough will try to hurt you.

Choi: Try verbal de-escalation first. This means giving the other person a way to get out of the situation or save face without hurting you. There are scripts in use in some professions that deal with vexatious patients, customers or clients.

Choi: Never watch your phone in a situation you believe is high-risk. Look for escape routes on the street, like businesses open to the public.

Choi: It’s best to avoid getting physical, but if you want to be able to defend yourself, get serious about training. It’s hard to remember complex things under stress.

Tabashneck: One red flag is if someone makes a specific threat that includes a time and a place. Ready access to a gun is also a concern.

Huelgo: With domestic abuse, escalating violence and stalking are both signs of danger. The time right after the abused partner leaves is also, statistically speaking, the most dangerous.

Ian Harris: Secure your computer systems and social media accounts, and talk to your domestic abuse clients about what kind of social media their abusers use.

Huelgo: Think about opportunities to make your office more secure.

Choi: If you carry a gun, it’s most effective when the person you feel is a threat knows you have it. This means it’s more effective in states with widespread concealed carry, and for people who can communicate clearly that they have the gun without escalating the situation.

Allen Bailey: Keep a gun it in a desk drawer, because carrying it could escalate a situation.

Lawyers aren’t the only targets of violent clients. Judges must face the possibility of attacks as well.

Nathan Hall, security consultant for the National Center for State Courts, says the state courts have a wide variety of approaches to security, including a few (generally smaller) with not much security at all. Federal courts, because they are all one system and security is handed over to the U.S. Marshals Service, do better.

All state courts should all have a security plan, with responsible parties on a standing security committee. Courthouse personnel should be trained, and the NCSC does offer training. You don’t need bucketloads of money for some of this.

State courts should have security cameras, keep their shrubbery trimmed and maybe offer call boxes at times when cellphones aren’t available.

Judges should have secure parking, and escorts should be available for judges and parties at risk.

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