They Attack You for One Reason: to Hurt YouOn September 29, 2003, as solo attorney Richard Hendrickson was kneeling and reaching into his briefcase to serve a motion in a Minneapolis courthouse seeking to declare Susan Berkovitz a frivolous litigator, Berkovitz aimed a .38 caliber pistol within inches of the area below Hendrickson’s right ear and fired the gun.The bullet went into Hendrickson’s neck and bounced off his vertebrae, tearing its way forward and ripping through a secondary artery while leaving a trail of fragments near the base of his skull. Hendrickson fell on his right side and could only lay there helplessly, bleeding, as he heard four more shots that Berkovitz had fired at his client, Shelley Joseph-Kordell, in a nearby women’s restroom.“The human mind is an amazing thing,” remarks Hendrickson as he recalls the moment he should have died on the 17th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center.“Your brain tells you, ‘you’re being shot,’” says Hendrickson, and time slowed down to the point where it felt like Hendrickson could count seconds between the moment he saw in his peripheral vision a glimpse of the pink dress Berkovitz was wearing, to when the flash of the muzzle occurred as the gun discharged, to eventually the moment when Hendrickson felt a pain beyond anything he had ever known.“It was as if [Minnesota Twins great] Harmon Killebrew had stepped up next to me and swung a bat into my neck like he was aiming for the bleachers.”At about the same time Hendrickson and Kordell were rushed to a nearby trauma center for treatment for their gunshot wounds, Berkovitz was found, unarmed, on another floor of the 24-story county building and apprehended by law enforcement authorities. Hendrickson, who couldn’t speak for several days after the shooting owing to his injuries, inquired in writing about the condition of his client Shelley Joseph-Kordell. When a concerned nurse declined to give him a report on Kordell and offered that he get more rest, Hendrickson knew immediately that his client had been killed.Hendrickson and Kordell had been worried about Berkovitz long before she attempted to take both of their lives in the downtown Minneapolis courthouse. The months leading up to the shootings were filled with multiple hearings involving the guardianship of Berkovitz’s father. Berkovitz, who was upset that her cousin Kordell had been named conservator/guardian of her father, proceeded to harass and intimidate Kordell and Hendrickson in a variety of ways.Berkovitz was a serial litigator. In the months prior to the shootings, she filed multiple motions attacking the legitimacy of the Kordell appointment in Ramsey County, where the matter was first venued. Court personnel cringed during her frequent visits to the filing clerk’s office and while attending to the constant needs of the pro se claimant, knowing that her motions would likely be found without merit and summarily dismissed. With every motion she filed and lost, her anger got more palpable. “Her frustration was that she kept losing,” says Hendrickson.The system was in the process of shutting her off, but it’s a long process. The court began to put more limits on what Berkovitz could do. First she was no longer allowed to conduct business in the probate office, and then she was no longer allowed to call the office at all. After the court declared that she could no longer file anything without prior approval of the assistant chief judge, Berkovitz had had enough and started bringing actions against Kordell and Hendrickson in nearby Hennepin County.On the day that Shelley Joseph-Kordell entered the Hennepin County Government Center for the last time, she had expressed great reservation about appearing at a harassment hearing requested by Berkovitz that both Kordell and Hendrickson knew was frivolous. Kordell recognized that Berkovitz’s behavior was growing increasingly bizarre, and she suspected that Berkovitz was the cause for the dead animals that mysteriously began appearing in her yard behind her townhouse. Kordell was anxious and requested that a security guard accompany them to the hearing. Hendrickson complied by arranging for an unarmed security escort who met them as they entered the government center.Upon arriving on the 17th floor where the hearing was to be held, both Hendrickson and Kordell noticed Berkovitz and chose to stand in an area of the hallway out of Berkovitz’s line of vision. Kordell, feeling very agitated, went to a nearby restroom where the security guard stood watch outside the door. Nobody seems to know where the security guard went once the shootings began. Immediately after shooting Hendrickson, Berkovitz entered the nearby women’s restroom and shot Kordell four times, creating six bullet wounds in her arms, head, chest, and neck.Looking back on the incident, Richard Hendrickson does not feel he could have done anything more to prevent the attack from occurring.“Over the course of my law practice, I had seen a number of Susan Berkovitz types—irrational, unstable, mentally ill,” says Hendrickson. He saw it as part of his job to advise his clients that dealing with bizarre and unstable people is sometimes part of the process, and the way to handle it was to continue with the legal proceedings and let the court decide.“Besides,” says Hendrickson, “What could we do about it? We would have liked to have her committed, but the sense was that she never really crossed a line.”Hendrickson does, however, recognize bizarre client behavior much sooner now than he did in the past, and he takes it much more seriously.“Now,” Hendrickson adds, “an attorney also has to know when to get out of a situation.” He acknowledges that nearly every attorney will routinely be required to deal with “goofy” individuals, but the client is depending on the attorney’s gut instinct to recognize when the warning signs have reached a dangerous level. “Trust your gut,” says Hendrickson. “If it’s not right, or scary, or beyond bizarre, don’t dismiss it.”Hendrickson always knew that he would return to the practice of law after recovering from his injuries. Lawyers concerned about angry and intimidating parties will occasionally call Hendrickson for advice. He reminds lawyers that the world is full of dangerous people. Although Berkovitz had a range of emotional problems that led to her committing the assault, there were also a few strangers who attended the post-trial motions simply to show support for Berkovitz’s defense. The reasoning of the defense was that Hendrickson deserved to be shot because, as a lawyer, “He had it coming.”“They attack you for only one reason. To hurt you,” says Hendrickson.
Defusing a Dangerous SituationThe attack on Richard Hendrickson and his client Shelley Joseph-Kordell was unusual in that it was committed by a woman. According to data by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, personal assault crimes are typically committed by men ages 15 to 30. What wasn’t unusual about it was that a handgun was used in the assault. Handguns have replaced edge weapons, such as knives and razors, as the most common weapon used by a perpetrator in an assault.Hendrickson, who doesn’t like guns, feels that a handgun in his possession at the time of his assault would have done nothing to aid in his defense. Instead, Hendrickson believes that lawyers have a better chance of avoiding an assault by a violent client if they recognize the potential for danger early on and steer clear of the situation.Mary Brandl, an educator in self-defense and co-author (with Anita Bendickson) of the book Scenarios in Self-Defense, agrees with Hendrickson. To Brandl, self-defense involves employing any available means for safely avoiding or escaping a potentially dangerous encounter. It needn’t involve fighting or a direct physical encounter. The goal of self-defense is not to “win,” but rather to get away from a potentially dangerous situation safely.“Without realizing it, people take on more risks based upon a false sense of their past success,” says Brandl. Lawyers such as Hendrickson might have taken on cases thinking, “This doesn’t feel right, but I’ve handled tough cases like this before.” According to Brandl, legal professionals need to assess the level of danger in a matter by “judging what is going on in that situation, not how it compares to your past success.”Brandl, a fourth-degree black belt in shotokan karate, began developing a specialized self-defense course for legal, insurance, and government professionals when she realized that in many occupations, work involving dangerous confrontation was sometimes the norm.“You just can’t teach an individual involved in child welfare enforcement to leave every time they are involved in a confrontation,” says Brandl. Brandl also works with health inspectors, insurance claims adjusters, child support enforcement officers, financial assistance representatives, and others in occupations where giving someone bad news is frequently part of the normal routine.Brandl’s self-defense advice focuses on both nonverbal and verbal tools to counter the escalation that is common to nearly all serious confrontations. Brandl especially advises professionals to understand the importance of nonverbal tools for de-escalating confrontation, as most human communication does not involve words and is more based on how we focus our eyes and control our body movement, and how well we are paying attention to the feelings of the situation.
Tools for Cooling Confrontation(adapted from Scenarios in Self-Defense, BPS Communications, 1989; used with permission from the co-author, Mary Brandl). There are certain elements of escalation common to nearly all serious confrontations. The following tips from Scenarios in Self-Defense, by Mary Brandl and Anita Bendickson, are designed to counter these elements and make it more difficult for a confrontation to keep escalating.
- Strong body language. Have a strong "base" position (i.e., with legs slightly apart so the body forms a pyramid) where it is easy to take a deep breath.
- Tone of voice. A quieter voice when trying to keep a situation from escalating is usually the best course. In a situation that has escalated to extreme, sudden loud behaviors might startle the aggressor enough to buy you some time and enable you to get to safety.
- Emphasis of voice. Be aware of what you are saying and the possible negative effects from too much use of a questioning voice. If a verbal response is called for, using commands and statements in a firm but non-challenging tone is perhaps your most valuable response for ending a situation.
- Distance. It is very important to keep distance from the aggressor. Attackers need to be close to attack and will use ploys to get within "handshake distance." Moving or backing away does not have to look like you are backing down.
- Never turn your back on a hostile person. Be aware that it is easier for an upset person to physically escalate if you have your back to him or her.
- Oblique angles. To approach or stand straight-on toward a person can have a very different effect than using a slight angle. Be aware of the situations where each might be useful and how a straight-on approach can appear as a challenge.
- Eye contact. To look at someone in a way that makes them feel acknowledged without being too intrusive or possibly provoking, use a more diffuse kind of eye contact. You can do this by looking at the more general area of the person's face rather than looking just at the eyes.