February 24, 2021 Lawyer Wellness

Safety Tips for Lawyers

Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe and Carole L. Worthington

Most attorneys begin their law practice with no concern for their personal safety in mind. They eagerly accept new clients and begin to meet with them to assist them with their legal issues. A new attorney may begin without other attorneys or office staff who can provide assistance if issues arise. The first instance where an attorney may feel that their personal safety is in jeopardy is in the office with the doors closed and a client suddenly becomes belligerent. A client who expresses strong belligerence toward others may turn the belligerence on the attorney.

As a rule of thumb, if you feel uncomfortable with the tone of a conversation, it is wise to advise the client that you must end the meeting earlier than expected. Stand up, open the door, and invite the client to leave your office. This may diffuse the situation and allow you to determine if you will be able to continue to work with the client. If not, you may follow-up with a letter explaining that you can no longer represent the client. For elder law attorneys it may not be so cut and dry.

Elder law attorneys face instances where their personal safety may be threatened because they represent individuals in guardianship matters that require them to meet clients in their homes, hospitals, and nursing homes. Many times the client may suffer from emotional, intellectual, or mental disabilities. There are some practical strategies that an attorney may employ to stay safe and provide needed legal services.

Home visits are very common for elder law attorneys, whether it is an initial client meeting or a follow-up to an office meeting. Whenever meeting with a client in their home attempt to telephone the individual prior to the meeting and establish a rapport. If the telephone conversations are troublesome, inform the client that you will have an assistant with you during the meeting at their home. Additionally, if you are unable to make contact via telephone prior to meeting with the client, always bring an assistant with you if you are arriving unannounced. Don’t forget to ask the client to identify any other people that will be in the home when you arrive. If these people may serve as witnesses to documents, request identification and photograph the ID. Also, photograph the identification of the client.

Hospitals have secure psychiatric units that you may have to visit to meet with your client. Always check-in at the nursing station and inquire about your client’s behavior. Provide your identification and business card. If the client can become agitated easily you may wish to have the staff escort the client to a common area instead of meeting in the client’s room. When meeting in a client’s room always identify the nurse call button when you first enter the room.

Nursing homes are similar to hospitals in that they have secure dementia units that an attorney may have to visit. Generally, you sign-in at the front desk and are provided a room number for your client. For the most part, residents in a facility have the ability to roam about on their own, if they are ambulatory. Therefore, you should always present yourself to the floor nursing station and advise them of what room you will be entering. They will be able to advise you if the client is not in their room or if there are any special protocols in place for your client. Some clients may have a history of elopement and therefore are not allowed to walk with you to the door of the secure unit or the door of the facility. Some clients may have to be escorted by a staff member when they leave their room because of their aggressive behavior towards other residents. As with hospital visits, when meeting in a client’s room always identify the nurse call button when you first enter the room.

Guardianships are a very peculiar type of civil action, the individual being placed into a guardianship is  alleged to need someone else to manage their person and/or property. There may be many people involved in a guardianship matter and in some instances, the guardianship may be contested. You should follow the guidelines above for all guardianship matters. However, the most emotionally charged day in a guardianship may be the day that everyone appears in court. Generally, each courtroom has a bailiff in the courtroom. If there have been problems civilly communicating between the parties, it may be wise to alert the court that you would request that a sheriff be in the courtroom during the proceedings.

Due to the confidential nature of the work that a lawyer provides her clients, a lawyer’s physical safety may be compromised very easily while meeting with clients in the office, at a client’s home, in a hospital, nursing home, or even in a courthouse! Hopefully, you are now more aware of potentially dangerous situations and can implement some practical preventive strategies. 

Entity:
Topic:

Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe

Law Office of Karren Pope-Onwukwe LLC

Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe is a prominent elder law and disability rights attorney, bar leader and community activist; her practice is centered around helping clients plan for aging, disability, and wealth transfer. Attorney Pope-Onwukwe also serves as General Counsel to small and non-profit business entities and towns. Attorney Pope-Onwukwe is the editor of the 2010 edition of Practical Aspects of Adult Guardianship published by the Maryland Institute for Continuing Professional Education of Lawyers.

Carole L. Worthington

The Law Office of Carole Lynch Worthington

Carole Lynch Worthington is a solo practitioner in Knoxville, Tennessee, focusing on estate planning, estate administration, and elder law. She is the Chair-Elect of the Senior Lawyers Division. She is a former Delegate at Large in the ABA House of Delegates and Commissioner of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights.