On the morning of March 27, someone allegedly ambushed attorney David Kuker in his garage, shooting him twice before fleeing. On May 1, Jeffrey Goeglein called police to say that someone fired shots through a window in his home. Both men work at Faegre Baker Daniels’ Fort Wayne office – Kuker is a partner, and Goeglein is an associate. And police say the two shootings do not appear to be random.
As of May 17, police had made no arrest in either case.
Law firms generally have security measures to protect employees in the office. Outside of work, the best strategy for staying safe is using common sense, identifying potentially dangerous people and learning to trust your instincts.
Clients under duress
On June 23, 1989, a man shot his estranged wife to death before driving 20 miles to Warsaw, Ind., where he shot and killed his wife’s attorney, Charles Ireland, inside Ireland’s law office. It’s a tragic tale that’s repeated over and over again when volatile family disputes erupt.
Indiana State Police Capt. Dave Bursten said attorneys who handle family and criminal law may run a higher risk of an attack, simply based on the disputes they’re trying to resolve. And trials can stir feelings of resentment or cause people to act out.
“You’ve probably met the spouse of your client, and if you have indications that lead you to believe this person could have violent tendencies, that’s something you should let the court know before the trial so the bailiff could have extra security there,” Bursten said.
Sometimes, though, an attorney is completely unaware of a potential danger.
In 2009, a man lured Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, to the site of an alleged real estate transaction and attacked him. DeLaney, a real estate lawyer, had no reason to suspect anyone might be targeting him, and he didn’t recognize his attacker, Augustus Mendenhall. Mendenhall had been harboring a grudge against DeLaney for more than two decades, believing that the lawyer was responsible for his family’s financial problems after DeLaney represented a mall in a lawsuit against his father’s business.
“What bothered me then is that my dealings with his father were so remote – that’s the concern I have … you don’t know who is festering, who is angry, who is hurt and doesn’t know how to accept it,” DeLaney said. “In the course of litigation, you can detect that some people are handling it very badly. The problem is that there are those that don’t show it.”
The role of the firm
Law firms can and do take steps to protect employees from dangerous people.
Sabrina Presnell Rockoff, a lawyer with McGuire Wood & Bissette in North Carolina, has advised several corporations on internal human resource policies and employee relations. She said one of the most basic safety measures for a law firm is ensuring that all guests access the office through one central location.
“Our office, anyone can walk in at any time … any time you have a public place like that, having a centralized area where the public is received is important, and having the rest of the office protected from that centralized area – whether that be by key cards, doors, people having to have a security card or badge to get past – I think is a great way to protect employees,” she said.
The receptionist or person who greets guests should be trained on what to do if a threatening person enters the building, she said. And if the firm has recently fired a hostile employee or won a large jury verdict, managers can put the firm on alert and ask the receptionist to be on the lookout for particular people.
“You need to make sure they have enough information to make sure they can take quick action to protect the rest of the workforce,” Rockoff said.
Law firms are concerned about protecting files, and Rockoff said that in securing access to files, firms can also protect workers. She cited as an example a firm where she worked that had all conference rooms on one floor. Guests could not access the lawyers’ offices or other parts of the building without a key card.
“That does two things – it protects the files and it protects the information, and it also has the effect of protecting employees,” Rockoff said.
Kerrie Weinzapfel, firm administrator for Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn, in Evansville, said the firm advises attorneys to meet with clients in conference rooms instead of their office.
“For some practice areas, where emotions may run high, we encourage the use of conference rooms on the main floor of our office so that we can keep the client in a relatively public location and the location of the attorney’s office confidential,” she said.
Rockoff said she has handled some messy employment law cases that have caused her to move the location of a deposition.
“Something that I have done before where I had a really disgruntled plaintiff employee is hold the deposition at the courthouse so they have to go through the metal detector,” she said.
Asking for help
Weinzapfel said the firm does take threats seriously and has on occasion hired security guards when it believed additional precautions were necessary. If firm managers believe someone may be targeting them, Rockoff said, they can ask for increased police patrols in their area.
Boone County Sheriff Ken Campbell spoke to judges about courthouse security and courtroom safety at the Spring Judicial College in April.
“Certainly if you’re a judge or a lawyer, many of the people you come in contact with are of a group that may be more reactive, or they wouldn’t be involved in the legal system,” he said.
Campbell said judges should get to know their local sheriff and ask for help if they have any concerns about a person becoming violent.
“Establish that relationship with your sheriff, with your bailiff, with court security – and the same goes for lawyers,” he said.
Bursten said if someone does threaten an attorney, the attorney needs to point out that threatening an act of violence is illegal.
“If that doesn’t reset the person’s mainframe by – in a polite way – saying you’re committing a criminal act by what you just said, then maybe the best thing to do is to follow it through with legal action,” Bursten said.
Campbell said that he often sees people walking down the street in what he calls “condition white” – completely unaware of what’s going on around them, staring at their smartphones.
“We’re bipeds – you need to walk with your head up and looking around,” he said.
He also said that people need to trust their instincts and recognize that when they feel something isn’t right, or the hair on the back of their neck stands up, that message should not be ignored.
“It’s your brain that’s basing this feeling on all your life experiences … your brain is telling you something; you’re just not always smart enough to recognize it,” he said.•