Incidents of attorneys being shot or assaulted by angry clients have a long history in this country, as the patched-over bullet holes in courthouses around the United States can attest. Whether these attacks occur on the street (Van Nuys, 2003), in an office (in Phoenix, 2013), or in a high-rise complex (the 1993 rampage at 101 California Street in San Francisco), these events should give every lawyer and office staffer reasons to think more about workplace and personal security.
It’s easy to fall back on what Los Angeles security expert Gavin de Becker calls the “Myth of No Past Problems,” meaning because yesterday was boring in the office, today will be boring as well. This can lead to blind spots when it comes to problematic clients: “Well, Mr. Jones was relatively cooperative during the last two depositions, so he’s probably going to be mostly cooperative for the depo today.” This overlooks the fact that today, Mr. Jones feels hopeless, helpless, and furious. He believes time is running out as he faces a financial loss he feels is caused by the law firm.
Safety in a law office should not be judged just on the emotionality of the clients today but as on-going concern. Lawyers have a duty to protect themselves and their staff from harm, by reading the warning signs of clients’ preattack behaviors, creating a more secure office environment by getting advice from security practitioners, and setting better boundaries with current or former clients.
Read the signs of future violence. It sounds counterintuitive, but research from the U.S. Secret Service suggests we have more to be worried about from people who don’t threaten violence directly to the target, than those who do. People who are the most dangerous tell third-parties about using violence—like coworkers or family members—not the actual target. Don’t just focus on a verbal threat as the only sign of danger; look for what is not said. This includes body language that is seething and controlled (like a coiled snake) as opposed to visible and obvious, or the use of “finalizing,” time-shortened, all-or-nothing statements that the person may say matter-of-factly or under his or her breath, like, “This isn’t over” or “You won’t like it the next time you see me.” These statements are more about posing a threat versus making a threat.
Prepare for high-risk meetings, depositions, or mediations with security people and protocols. In the courthouse, lawyers can have some confidence that people who come into that space have been screened for firearms. In the law office, it’s difficult to ask angry clients (from either side) to leave their bags, purse, backpacks, or briefcases outside the meeting room. And even if they do, we won’t know a violent client is carrying a weapon until we suddenly see it. It may be necessary to hire an armed security professional to sit in on these high-stress meetings.
Track the comments, actions, or behaviors of irrational or threatening current or former clients. Lawyers need to pay attention to news stories, social media postings, or evidence of antisocial behavior involving current or former clients. Was this person just arrested for a drug, alcohol, weapons, trespassing, probation, parole, or civil order violation? Have they harassed other attorneys or their staffs? Is there evidence of mental illness? Is there a “triggering event,” like a domestic violence arrest, divorce, or a court decision against them? Have they just been fired or lost their medical benefits or unemployment insurance?
These security approaches can improve the way attorneys interact with difficult, entitled, or high-risk current or former clients.