woman peering out nervously from behind horizontal blinds in her office

Planning and Preparation Key to Lawyer Safety in Increasingly Dangerous Landscape

  • February 26, 2023
  • Emily Sinkins

Threats of violence against legal professionals are on the rise, yet few lawyers feel comfortable talking about this troubling reality, making them less likely to take steps to prevent an attack. Experts at a recent OBA program on the subject agreed that making plans and implementing measures to protect themselves and their staff against violence is vital for lawyers and legal employers who want to keep their workplaces and teams as safe as possible, and lessen opportunities for violence.

In the United States, where the U.S. Marshals Service tracks threats of violence against federally protected court personnel, the number of threats against federal judges, prosecutors and their staff have nearly quadrupled in eight years, reaching 4,511 in 2021 – a threat for every seven individuals monitored, according to Stephen Kelson, a lawyer and mediator at Christensen & Jensen in Salt Lake City who has written and spoken extensively on violence in the legal profession. While similar data is not available in Canada, we have seen terrible and shocking incidents in recent years – including the fatal stabbing of a receptionist at a downtown Toronto firm and the non-fatal shooting of a criminal defence lawyer outside his office in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood – that suggest we are not immune from this trend.

The areas of law most subject to threat, according to Kelson, are family law, criminal prosecution, criminal defence and general practice. However, most lawyers – regardless of practice area – are loath to talk about their own experiences with such threats, believing it simply comes with the territory; that, as Kelson says, “you’re supposed to be strong, sturdy and take it.” What they’re unwilling to discuss with colleagues, they often open up about in surveys, Kelson’s research shows. He cites a Wisconsin survey where attorneys recounted lunges across the table, a stabbing with a pen, a surprise visit to the home, graffiti outside the residence, a dead fish in the mail, a kitchen window shot out. Fewer than half of these threats were reported to police.

All too often, when an aggrieved party can no longer harm the person they would normally go after, they channel that anger toward the person – judge or lawyer – who is seen to be their protector. This can send them down a perilous pathway that begins with a grievance, moves into ideation of hate, transitions to research/planning, then preparing, then seeking a breach, and ultimately an attack.

As lawyers, you might hear from a third party, like opposing counsel, a mental health professional or your own client, about threat-making (it may even be your client issuing the threat), or you may receive a direct communication from the individual declaring they will harm someone. Kelson notes that about 95 per cent of the time, nothing results from the threat, but you must take it seriously.

John McDonald, a former police officer and current director at Threat Ready Inc. in London, Ont., agrees that it’s incumbent upon lawyers and firm management to take precautions and to provide the kind of safety training that law schools do not. It might include assembling a corporate response team. He observes, “We put too much trust in others to protect us.”

What should these safety precautions entail?

Site audit

McDonald recommends doing a 360-degree site audit of your office and your residence during the day and during the night, looking at entrances and exits, and making sure to approach from an elevated posture, as well. He notes that the busier your location, the easier it is for someone to surveil you unnoticed – from a parked car in the lot, or a nearby bus stop, for instance. But, “if you know your site intimately, you can take away some of their opportunity.”

 Limit access to office areas

Avoid open access to your office. McDonald notes that many offices are designed to put visitors at an advantage by giving them access to ingress and egress points that the receptionist lacks, making front-desk staff extra vulnerable as a result. “Access control is the number one failure in most places,” he says. He suggests keeping meeting rooms and washrooms in a controlled area up front while limiting deeper access to the rest of the building. Don’t leave purses or backpacks unattended and, above all, don’t let visitors wander around hallways and breakrooms. “Often we get a little tunnel vision about what we do, where we go, and what we see,” says Kelson, “but we need to make sure that we broaden our view.” If looking for office space, keep in mind that windows that face out onto the parking lot improve safety for those walking to and from their cars.

Electronic footprint check

While it’s unrealistic to imagine you can (or would wish to) scrub your online presence entirely, McDonald does recommend having someone (a savvy Googler, perhaps a teenager) do an electronic footprint check on you, so you’re at least aware of what’s out there – and what might be prudent and feasible to remove. In just five minutes of searching online, McDonald was able to find reams of information on one high-profile lawyer, including names of family members, schools, home address, and videos recorded inside her office.

Consider a code phrase

In offices where there is a receptionist at the first point of entry, you might consider instituting a code phrase that will allow them to alert a colleague to danger without raising suspicion (something distinguishable but benign enough that it won’t raise suspicions of those who overhear). McDonald emphasizes that safety training should be part of onboarding, most especially for your “gatekeepers” and for less controlled meetings. “If lawyers ever go to see clients in their own homes or off site,” he says, “they should have training on how to do that safely.”

Tune into warning signs

Ideally, we would like to prevent violence, which also means learning how to defuse tense situations before they escalate. Dr. Julie Beaulac, a registered clinical, health, and rehabilitation psychologist and consultant in Ottawa, advises lawyers to look out for warning signs of escalation in those they’re interacting with, including obvious changes in body language, agitation, tightening, fidgeting, and changes in eye contact, posture and tone. “The brain at an unconscious level immediately recognizes danger and is seeking to keep us safe,” she says, “Another way of thinking about this is almost like the ‘spidey sense’ you might get at a body level.” It’s important that we tune into this biologically driven fear signalling system – to trust our intuition – in order to take steps to deescalate. This is something those in the legal profession might struggle with, Dr. Beaulac observes, as they “often get trained out of [it],” and told to prioritize tangible evidence over gut feeling.

The more we pay attention, the earlier we can take helpful steps to intervene for our own safety and the safety of others. A strategy Dr. Beaulac recommends when faced with an increasingly agitated client is to identify the emotion and then validate the underlying concern – which doesn’t mean agreeing with or going along with the request. For example, you might say, “I sense you’re really bothered – what are you needing right now?” She notes there is a “fundamental human need to be understood, to feel heard,” and that a simple message of, “I might not be able to do what you’re asking, but I want to understand where you’re coming from,” can go a long way to alleviating the anger or frustration.

Responding to an imminent threat

When the worst happens, and you find yourself facing an imminent threat of violence, what can you do? First and foremost, while it’s easier said than done, Dr. Beaulac advises remaining as calm as possible, using non-defensive language, adopting a neutral posture and conveying empathy while identifying a way out. Similarly, Kelson suggests communication that reframes their focus can be key – but don’t challenge. The person with the grievance is operating on what Kelson calls “Stage 1 thinking” – which is all emotion. “You have to get them to Stage 2 thinking – to realize what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”

He relayed an anecdote showing this advice of his and Dr. Beaulac’s deployed successfully. A judge was confronted in his office late at night, where he was working alone, by a man whose parental rights he had terminated after an especially ugly hearing. Cleaning staff had let him in through the back of the courthouse and now the father was standing in his doorway, angry and yelling at him. The judge was scared for his life, but he invited the man to take a seat and to talk about it, and he listened. “He didn’t make any promises about anything,” Kelson said, “You don’t want to just say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll do whatever you want to do’ … because the other person knows you’re just trying to placate them.” After a half hour or so, the man was more relaxed and was crying. They talked things over and walked out together. “It was staying calm and having that conversation, and letting him know he cared, but doing it in a safe way, that brought him through,” says Kelson.

Take comfort in preparation

To be equipped to deal in the dreadful moment, McDonald comes back to preparation. “If you don’t have that as a reference point, then chances are you’re going to stumble.” You might run through scenarios and consider what you would do if A or B happened. Know what you can do in your workspace, because as McDonald advises, you will have “predetermined a safe place, an exit strategy or a code word.” Distribute copies of the OBA’s newly updated Personal Security Handbook. Heed his encouragement: “I want people to have a plan before something happens, so it gives you some level of comfort.”