Heather L. King and Jessica H. Janicek 2014-08-27 05:26:23
Violence against litigators and the bench. Twenty-two years ago, on July 1, 1992, a gunman with a 16-round clip and an extra round for his 9-millimeter semi-automatic Glock handgun opened fire inside the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth, killing two lawyers and wounding three others, including two justices. George Lott, who has since been executed for the crime, was purportedly angry about the outcome of his child custody case. As family law attorneys in Tarrant County, we are reminded of Lott’s crime every day that we go to court, as we remove our shoes from our feet, our belts from our waists, and our laptops from our briefcases before we walk through the metal detectors that were installed just weeks after his deadly rampage. Lott, ironically, also was a trial attorney, who likely had dealt with many of his own angry clients and opposing parties, in the same courthouse and same setting, illustrating that even an attorney trained in dealing with the stress of litigation could not overcome the anger generated by his own personal courtroom experience and allowed his need for what he perceived as retribution to outweigh the purpose of a system of justice that he himself represented. Unfortunately, such acts of violence continue to occur in the legal profession, many times in high-conflict areas of law, such as family law and other civil litigation, that involve person versus person and a range of attendant emotions. Take, for example, the 2013 case of Mark Hummels, an Arizona business attorney shot by the opposing party at the conclusion of a mediation. The underlying case involved a contract dispute regarding the refurbishment of cubicles. Or in 2012, the shots fired by Bartholomew Granger, a Beaumont man on trial for sexual assault, who shot several people in front of the courthouse. In all of these situations, it seems that although this violence was spurred by anger with the person filing the lawsuit, the attorneys and the courthouse bore the blame. Surprisingly, there is a common saying between family law and criminal law attorneys that litigants in criminal cases are often on their best behavior, while litigants in family law cases are often at their worst. It might seem odd—as many assume, perhaps unfairly, that a criminal litigant would be more likely to act badly—but those of us who work in the system often see that family law cases involve emotional, and many times irrational, spouses and parents. (And the potential of such experiences seems to be increasing, as the Texas Department of Public Safety noted in 2012 a total of 188,992 reported family violence incidents, up 6.2 percent from the previous year.1) Family law litigants are thrust into highly sensitive battles that pit them against people they once loved and trusted, often over their children or long-held property. It’s not unusual that a litigant might feel hatred and anger toward a spouse’s attorney and, on rare occasion, may act on it. The same is true for any type of litigation between two human beings. They are fighting, perhaps over an event that was financial or otherwise extremely significant to them, such as homeowner versus builder. They have lost some control over their lives and may have incurred financial losses as a result of what they believe is the fault of another. So, why go after the lawyer? Many times, once litigation begins, there ceases to be any direct communication between the parties, thus pitting the two opposing lawyers against one another to advocate their clients’ positions. The result sometimes is dangerous misdirected anger, with the opposing client viewing the lawyer as being at fault because the lawyer is conveying the unsavory message. As lawyers, we are aware that violence doesn’t necessarily have to be physical or end in death. It can take various alternative forms, including: threats, stalking, verbal harassment, bullying, and now with the Internet, it can also take a cyber format. It is easy for a disgruntled client or opposing party to find attorney email addresses or physical addresses or to locate personal attorney profiles on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. And with the creation of an anonymous account or with their own personal accounts, third parties can easily send threatening or harassing messages that can impact an attorney’s life. These messages can include threats of physical violence, threats on a person’s life, or threats on a loved one’s life and can leave a lawyer fearing for his or her own safety and constantly looking over his or her shoulder, making it hard to lead a normal life. Threats to ruin a person financially or to ruin a reputation in the community can also have an effect on attorneys. After 22 years and the installation of hundreds of courtroom metal detectors and x-ray machines across Texas, the question remains—why do people continue to incite violence against attorneys who are simply doing their jobs? For example, what if an opposing party thought that a judgment against them would be their demise? Or if a disgruntled spouse felt that we single-handedly ruined a marriage? Sometimes, although those thoughts are completely irrational, it is the attorney who is blamed. According to Sigmund Freud, a person attacks the messenger due to a human being’s defense mechanism. Namely, as a way to decrease anxiety when a situation becomes highly stressful. Although there is no doubt that things can quickly turn heated in any litigation, the killing of an attorney will certainly not reduce a litigant’s anxiety. It is clear that the age-old saying is true—don’t kill the messenger. Not all incidents of violence are avoidable. Fortunately, a lawyer can take many precautions to minimize the risk of being in one of these horrible situations. Some suggested safety precautions are set forth below: 1. Protect your office. Install cameras outside your law office and within the waiting room or lobby. Lock attorneys and staff behind doors that require keys or codes to open, and allow visitors access only to the front of the building. If you do not have this ability, place a lock on your office door. Visitors should also sign in with the front desk, and should wear identification at all times, noting they are a visitor. If you or a member of the firm suspects something is off, create a “safe word” to use, including something your receptionist could say to you over the phone that a person in the lobby would not notice as suspicious. At the end of the day, all doors should be locked and all windows should be closed. If you plan to stay late in your office, be sure to contact the night security for your building or a friend or relative to alert them to your whereabouts and to escort you to your vehicle if necessary. 2. Have an exit strategy. Just over one year ago, Southlake attorney Juan Guerrero was murdered near our office while shopping in the Southlake Town Square. In fact, he was killed under our window while we were completing a deposition. Although we heard the muffled shots, it was not until we walked outside and saw the gruesome scene that the reality of how close this was kicked in and reminded us of how seriously we must take exit strategies. Look through the doors and windows in your office and have an understanding of the entrances and exits to your building. It is important to know how to escape in a deadly situation and how to act fast. 3. Know who to call. Does your office have a security guard? Do the police do a drive-by once a night? Is there a building manager? Know who to call for immediate assistance in your building if you suspect that you might be in danger or if a threat is imminent, and have those numbers handy at all times. While you should always first call the police when you feel threatened, reaching the appropriate office personnel to inform them of a potential threat is pertinent, as they can generally offer guidance and assistance. 4. Learn how to defend yourself. Additionally, take a safety class or other self-defense class to learn how to handle surprises. In Texas, many attorneys carry concealed handguns or store them in their desk drawers. It is important that you obtain the proper training if you intend to carry a weapon. But, it is also important that you understand how to be cognizant of your surroundings and learn the most basic training so you can handle yourself in a sticky situation. And don’t forget, you can’t bring your gun into the courthouse. 5. Be smart. If you are working late at the office, do not walk alone to your car in the parking lot while texting on the phone. While it may sound paranoid, trust your instincts. If you suspect someone may be watching or following you, dial 911 and hold your finger above the call button. Keep your car doors locked, and if your car has the ability to electronically unlock and start from a distance, consider using that device. Keep your personal whereabouts and information private, and do not post such things publicly on Facebook or any other social media platform. Although you cannot always prevent a person’s violent rampage, every attorney can take seriously the risks we face as lawyers and develop your practice in a smart manner. By simply using a few precautions to protect yourself and maintain the safety and welfare of your staff, you can minimize your risk of becoming the victim of a person’s irrational behavior and stop any possible violence before it starts. NOTES 1. Annual Report of 2012 UCR Data Collection: Crime in Texas Overview. Texas Department of Public Safety. Crime in Texas: 2012. HEATHER L. KING, a shareholder and manager of KoonsFuller’s Southlake office, is a family lawyer who focuses on divorce matters and handling trials and appeals throughout Texas. Several of her published appellate cases are featured in the annotations to the Texas Family Code. JESSICA H. JANICEK is a family law and appellate attorney in Texas who frequently handles complex legal issues and has argued and won cases in front of several courts of appeals and the Texas Supreme Court. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and four rescue dogs.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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