General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
Solo, Vol. 5, No 3.
Spring 1998
© American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

When Lawyers Become Prey

BY JENNIFER J. ROSE

Adding a Doberman pinscher to her office staff, jennifer rose practiced law in the bucolic cornfields of Iowa for 20 years before moving to Mexico. A freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer, she can be reached at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

Eighteen years ago, a former client beat the crap out of me. Not only did I suffer the usual insult and degradation that every victim feels, but as a lawyer, I felt doubly humiliated. After all, I'd kept this client out of prison. Deluded by the profession's bravado, lawyers bask in illusions that the profession's inherent goodness immunizes them against violence and that their practice specialty shields them from danger. As the protectors of truth, justice and the American Way, we're supposed to be fearless. How many of us are willing to admit that a client or adversary scares us?

Last fall a survey of ABA Family Law Section members revealed that 60 percent of the respondents had been threatened by adverse parties and 17 percent by their very own client. "Divorce clients are always crazy," you say, vowing to eliminate one segment of your practice.

John Luigi Ferri, who killed eight people at the San Francisco law firm Pettit & Marin five years ago, wasn't a domestic relations client. A San Antonio lawyer was shot during a dispute over a

probate case. In Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, an irate citizen sent a city attorney scurrying for cover, protecting others, as gunfire blew away many of the city council. Family law didn't spur Cape Fear's crazed character's rampage. Violence against lawyers takes place in small towns, public places, home offices, strip malls, high rises, and its perpetrators aren't limited to the ranks of the domestically disgruntled.

Current emphasis upon courtroom security is a nodding acknowledgment that the blindfolded Lady Justice isn't the guardian angel of lawyers and their work. She is not going protect you in the parking lot, on your way to the courthouse, in your office, or even at home. Only a quarter of the lawyers surveyed took any special precautions to ensure their safety. Protecting yourself, your staff, and your own family is your responsibility.

Donning Kevlar, packing a piece, and parking the staff behind bulletproof glass might be extreme measures, defeating that friendly approachability dictated by law practice marketing mavens. Motions and writs, lawyers' favorite weapons, not only consume billable hours but are of dubious efficacy. And professional bodyguards are beyond most solo and small firm practitioners' budgets. A few lawyers keep guns, big sticks, golf clubs, pepper spray, and even menacing dogs in the office, but these solutions aren't acceptable or even practical for everyone. Transparent and inexpensive solutions abound:

  • Control access to your office. Why should your law office be more accessible than your house?
  • Install a lock which your receptionist can "buzz open" to admit clients.
  • Establish an escape route.
  • Agree upon a code word for potentially explosive situations to warn staff.
  • Install a panic button.
  • Ask a secretary or associate to chaperone meetings with spooky clients.
  • Never meet with clients or adversaries when you're alone in the office, especially after hours.
  • Watch your backside en route from the office to your car.
  • During potentially explosive situations during trials, depositions, or whenever you've done anything fueling another's ire, alert everyone in the office as well as your own family.
  • Consider hiring a strong and mean-looking escort merely to maintain a presence during those special alert times.
  • Delete your home address from the phone book.
  • Let others know when you're afraid.

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