Violence committed by clients against attorneys and legal professionals is real. It happens in small towns and big cities, and in small and large legal practices. Some practice areas are more volatile than others, such as divorce and family law, dispute resolution, employment law and real estate litigation. Particularly in a bad economy with high unemployment, tempers are short and more people reach levels of desperation.
While dramatic cases like shootings at law firms make headlines, the majority of security incidents among attorneys and staff are unreported because they involve harassment and lower level threats. In the privacy of attorney-client meetings, emotional and sometimes irrational individuals lash out at their lawyers. Money is often at the heart of disputes and many attorneys are confronted with disagreements about their billable hours. Clients become upset and irate about how their case is proceeding or the outcome of a case. Meetings that involve elevated voices and foul language can be the precursor to a physical altercation.
Receptionists and other staff in law firms also encounter angry, hostile clients. Although experienced receptionists have a thick skin and are sometimes trained in how to manage harassment by clients and opposing parties, there are situations when they are truly threatened and in danger.
Law practice management should include systems and procedures that ensure workplace safety and violence prevention for attorneys and staff. All law office employees should acquire the skills to recognize and manage threatening, potentially dangerous individuals. Client-facing legal professionals need tools to protect themselves and prevent early stage situations from escalating into major, dangerous events.
Here are 10 safety tips for attorneys and legal staff.
1. Create a safe work environment for receptionists. Ensure receptionists have a clear view of the office entry way with little opportunity for people to sneak in or hide, particularly doors, elevators, and all traffic flow. Design the front desk to provide a barrier between receptionists and clients but also allows easy escape. Delineate a clear understanding of where clients are allowed to be in the lobby and front desk area. Remove office objects from the front desk that are potential weapons and keep them stored in drawers or cabinets – staplers, scissors and letter openers. Keep computer screens and family photos away from public view.
2. Establish safe meeting areas for clients and attorneys. Safe areas can include windows to allow co-workers to see what is occurring inside but still maintain confidentiality. Meeting areas should have two entrances so attorneys and staff can avoid being cornered. Before entering meeting rooms with potentially threatening clients, remove potential weapons from them.
3. Install security technology. Technology helps protect employees, reduces the severity of incidents and provides ways to quickly respond to situations. Consider installing buzzer doors that allow entry only after verification of the visitor. Provide panic buttons for attorneys, receptionists and other staff to discreetly notify others of a potentially dangerous situation before it escalates. Cameras and adequate lighting also help deter assailants.
4. Train all attorneys and staff how to handle angry clients. Defusing skills and knowing how to de-escalate hostile behavior are essential for attorneys and client-facing employees. Listening skills, redirecting negative behavior, setting boundaries and assault awareness are all acquired skills that should be continually honed with training and practice. There are many free online resources and security consultants who provide these services.
5. Establish a workplace violence policy and procedures. These should include clear instructions on how employees can report any concerns. Just as important as the method of reporting is an environment where all employees feel safe and supported. A danger that occurs in all workplaces, including law offices, is domestic violence spillover. When employees face domestic violence threats they must feel comfortable enough to inform their manager about embarrassing, private matters.
6. Provide employee assistance programs. Employee issues also arise from within a law practice. Human resources should provide support programs to employees with disciplinary issues or personal problems. This type of support helps prevent acts of violence and helps create a stronger, healthier workplace.
7. Develop risk and threat assessments. When a threat by a client emerges or is identified, a law office needs a process to determine the likelihood and severity of the threat. A process that gathers information, collects and reviews evidence and weighs warning signs is part of a good threat management system. Connections and relationships with local law enforcement and security professionals are paramount to risk analysis. Front desk personnel should be given descriptions of the threat with safety instructions should identified individuals arrive at the law firm.
8. Utilize legal resources to increase employee protection. Workplace restraining orders and trespass orders can always be obtained. Misdemeanor charges such as telephone harassment, stalking or property damage can be levied to create a paper trail for a threat, and the charges warn the individual not to harass legal professionals pending the trial. Many states also have a victim notification system that automatically calls any phone number once a person is released from jail.
9. Establish emergency response procedures. Should a threat ever become a reality, emergency response procedures help prevent a bad situation from becoming a complete catastrophe. A system that notifies all employees, has escape and lockdown procedures and support mechanisms for emergency response personnel are all components of crisis management.
10. Coordinate and communicate with neighboring businesses. It is important neighboring businesses are aware of potentially threatening, dangerous individuals. When a man bent on killing an attorney opens fire, anyone in the vicinity can be a target. Not only can emergency management be coordinated, but the surveillance of individuals and potential risks is increased through such community partnerships.
Law firms committed to workplace security ensure safe workplaces through the design of their facilities and the implementation of accessible, sophisticated technology. They train attorneys and employees in basic security skills to help mitigate hostile encounters. Conscientious law firms provide support for employees in need and establish an environment where their concerns can be disclosed. Safe law firms establish and practice threat and emergency management procedures that are vital in maintaining a safe workplace. While shootings in law firms are rare, the much more common hostile encounters with clients are sometimes warning signs that should be taken seriously.
These safety tips provide a general framework for establishing a safer law office, but the key requirement is to recognize threats against attorneys and legal professionals are real and can happen anywhere.