How to defuse threats against legal professionals

Nancy Crotti
The Daily Record Newswire

Much has been written about security for law offices in the wake of the April 7 shooting death of 23-year-old clerk Chase Passauer in his employer's St. Paul law office.

Lawyers have good reason to be concerned, and not just criminal defense and family law practitioners, according to Stephen Kelson, a Salt Lake City attorney who has studied violence against attorneys in 22 states. Two more states' surveys are in the works, although Minnesota has not participated, Kelson said.

The surveys of practicing attorneys, conducted with the cooperation of each state's bar association, reported assaults and batteries, vandalism to attorneys' businesses and personal property. Threats of violence included "stalking, phone calls, letters, emails, texts, online posts, verbal threats of physical violence and death threats, and even attempts to hire hit men to kill attorneys," Kelson writes in the Michigan survey report. "The results of each of these surveys show that violence and threats of violence against members of the legal profession are much more prevalent than reported by the media or commonly perceived by practitioners."

Violence or threats of violence may come from any party involved in a case, in or outside the office or courthouse and regardless of one's practice area, Kelson added.

"Recognizing the reality of potential violence in the practice of law is the first step in helping to avoid becoming the victim of work-related violence," his Michigan survey report concludes.

Kelson's advice for solo practitioners and small firms echoes what others have said:

- Make sure someone is in the reception area to see who's coming in.

- Give that person a code word to use in alerting others in the office of a potentially dangerous.

- Have the internal door leading to attorneys' office locked.

- Resist the temptation to set up your desk facing a window. Always face the door so there are no surprises.

Most importantly, Kelson said, attorneys need to know their clients.

"If you know your client's got issues and you've got a concern for your own safety, you know you probably shouldn't keep them as your client," he added. "You've got to find a way out of the circumstance before it goes the wrong way for you."

It's just that sort of conversation that can set a client off, particularly if they've lost their home or a relationship through divorce, or their liberty through a criminal conviction.

The worst way to react is with more anger, according to Kelson and Excelsior psychologist Yvette Erasmus. In addition to her private therapy practice, Erasmus trains people in a method of conflict resolution known as nonviolent communication.

Conceived by the late psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, nonviolent communication works to defuse confrontation by helping people who are upset to feel that they are being heard and understood. Rosenberg has used the method to ease tensions between U.S. gangs and among Israelis and Palestinians, among many others.

As a white South African growing up during apartheid, Erasmus developed a lifelong interest in bridging differences when no agreement seems possible. She worked in Egypt, the U.K. and Indonesia, studying cultural differences in how people learn, develop and bridge differences. A school where she was teaching in Bali had 200 students of 42 nationalities. Not only were students not getting along, but teachers, administrators and school board distrusted one another. Erasmus brought in a nonviolent communication trainer.

"I saw a pretty big cultural change in how they worked with each other," she said. "I decided to do more."

Erasmus returned to the United States in 2007 and studied with Rosenberg. In addition to coaching in collaborative culture and effective leadership for corporations and smaller businesses, she started nonviolent communication practice groups in the Twin Cities.

Erasmus leads these drop-in groups twice a week, for a nominal fee. She also conducts two eight-week courses each of beginner and advanced training every year. Participants have included physicians, executives, other therapists, social workers, attorneys, college students and retirees. Most are in their 40s or 50s, highly educated, and wanting to expand their skill sets, she said.

In the training, Erasmus delves into the neuroscience behind what she calls harnessing the power of empathy for the person who is upset, and also for yourself.

"When people are going into anger, they're perceiving danger, and it's usually based on a memory of a previous experience," she explained.

Rather than react to their anger, a person trained in nonviolent communication will seek to identify the other person's feelings and needs as well as their own.

Reacting to an angry person as someone whose behavior needs fixing adds to the injustice the aggrieved person is already feeling, Erasmus said. Conveying a willingness to understand the other person can help that person to become calmer and see you as another human being rather than as an object to be attacked.

Nonviolent communication is not passive. It involves unlearning habitual responses to conflict, including passivity. Being in tune with your own feelings and needs can help you identify when a situation is escalating, follow your instincts to leave the situation and seek help, according to Erasmus.

"There is a place for knowing what you're needing and going to bat for it," she said. "It's not about losing yourself and just focusing on the other people. It's really about holding both people in a both-and awareness."

Published: Mon, May 16, 2016

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