Doctoral Program Director talks about client violence

Firms Bolster Security As Fears Of Shootings Grow

Law360, New York (August 05, 2013, 6:44 PM ET) -- The glass door was locked, so Roderick Rist shot it open. He stepped through the shattered frame and kept firing into the law office. Police would find 60 bullets in chairs, computers, walls and one in Rist himself.

Last week’s shooting at the Upton Law Firm in Covington, La., marked the second time in five weeks and the third time since February that a gunman targeted a law office. Amid warnings from security officials and mental health professionals, law firms nationwide are adopting unprecedented strategies to prepare for the unthinkable.

“In my business, no one’s ever in a really good mood,” said Tim Upton, who represented Rist over a year before he returned to Upton’s office with two 9 mm semiautomatic handguns and two .22-caliber pistols. “They've either been harmed or they've been charged with a crime, and there’s only so much I can do. Money’s supposed to make them whole again, but it really doesn't.”

Except for one worker who hid in a cabinet, Upton’s office was empty during the shooting. But Rist decorated the workplace with bullet holes anyway and then took his own life outside of Upton’s door.

“A lot of times, the only person to point the finger at is the lawyer,” Upton said.

Offices a Likely Target for Shooters

According to a New York Police Department study of active shootings — incidents where a gunman tries to kill people in a confined, crowded area — the assailant had a professional relationship with the victim in 41 percent of all attacks, the most common type of relationship in a shooting.

“If I was an attorney, I would take it seriously, and I would increase my awareness of the potential for these types of events,” said Robert Hanlon, a clinical neuropsychologist at Northwestern University. “If an individual perceives that he or she has been poorly represented or wronged in some way, they may develop feelings of resentment, hatred and, ultimately, a strong desire for revenge.”

This can happen when a client begins to believe an attorney holds too much power over his or her life, said Christina Newhill, who directs the doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. Newhill specializes in risk assessment and client relationships.

“At the core of it, there’s an imbalance of power,” she said. “If you have a client with certain risk factors who feels like they’re powerless, they can feel like the only way to get that power back is to get violent."

In January, a man in Phoenix fatally shot two lawyers during a mediation session over a lawsuit he had filed. In June, a man entered a Greenville, N.C., law office and shot a worker with a shotgun before continuing his shooting spree in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The NYPD study did not analyze whether shootings have increased over the years, and violence against attorneys is tracked by neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation nor theAmerican Bar Association.

“We don’t know whether the prevalence of shootings is increasing, but we do know that there’s a lot more stress in our society,” Newhill said. “Especially with the economy, people are struggling.”

Physical Security in the Digital Age

Law firms have long consulted experts on cybersecurity, but a changing social climate has swung the focus of security officials back to the physical world.

“I get more calls now about concerns related to security than I ever have,” said attorney Sabrina Rockoff of McGuire Wood & Bissette PA, who advises clients on human resources practices. “The fact that something bad can happen is out there for everyone to see and to think about in a way that it hasn't been before.”

One strategy adopted at firms across the country involves adding physical barriers like keycard locks between the lobby and the rest of the office space and training those who work in the lobby for emergency situations.

Over the past six weeks, Perkins Coie LLP has installed panic buttons at its receptionists' workstations. Last year, K&L Gates LLP conducted its first-ever firmwide emergency drill in its American offices, simulating an active shooter attack.

“This is a reality, and it’s something we are indeed worried about,” said Spencer Lane, the firm’s director of security and business continuity. “The likelihood is very low, but we had to put protocols in place.”

Pay Attention to Warning Signs

But as last week’s shooting proved, physical barriers can offer only so much protection. Lawyers are trained to focus on the legal aspects of what a client tells them, but the very information lawyers tend to ignore could contain the warning sign needed to prevent a tragedy.

“Violence doesn’t typically drop out of the blue. Usually, the person is escalating,” Newhill said. “You’ve got to pay attention to what a person’s mood is, their behavior. A little bit of empathy can go a long way in making people feel cared about.”

Upton said he should have seen the warning signs in his client but was too focused on the legal case. Rist's case, a personal injury lawsuit, had ended in a settlement, but when Upton heard that someone had opened fire in his office, he was able to immediately guess the shooter's identity.

“I did see red flags. When I started seeing some of those emotions and reactions that I don’t believe are related to the case, I could have been more proactive in getting that individual psychological help in some way,” he said. “We did a good job, we got a good resolution based on what we had in front of us. It just didn’t address all of those other issues he had."

Like many attorneys, Upton keeps himself armed. Had he been at his office when the shooting occurred, he said, there would have been a gunfight.

An office's security risks depend on the type of work the firm does. In some cases, most often in criminal law or personal injury litigation, clients can feel the system is against them. When this happens, the client could direct aggression toward an attorney.

To increase security, a firm should first form a task force to identify the risks specific to its practice, said Ira Somerson, a private security consultant based in Gwynedd, Pa.

“Lawyers — they are, a lot of times, arrogant people. They think they're already experts in everything, and they don't think they need security,” he said. “But it’s part of business management, you either have it or you don’t. Nobody wants to think about what can go wrong.”

--Editing by Kat Laskowski and Jeremy Barker.