USA: Safety is every lawyer’s issue

August 30, 2019

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

Trust your instincts.

That’s the advice of two Minnesota criminal defense attorneys who have endured the emotional pain caused by their client’s acts of violence—a courthouse shooting in Grand Marais in 2011 and a homicide in a St. Paul law office in 2016.

Lawyers must hone their intuition to be alert for dangerous clients and should not be afraid to act on their fears, say John Lillie and Daniel Adkins.  And if the worst happens lawyers must take care of themselves and each other, they say, speaking to colleagues at the Minnesota State Bar Association convention in June. Lillie told the group, “You’re not shortchanging your clients by taking care of yourself.”

“We hate that we’re experts on this and we hate to talk about it, but we do it every time we’re asked because you deserve it,” Adkins told the group. “You don’t know what you can lose. There is no bottom to the pain you can experience.”

A traumatic or tragic event can happen to any lawyer, Adkins said. “Your practice, your life is affected by what happened to me,” he said. “It’s prosecutors, it’s defenders, its family lawyers, its people doing civil transactions. You write a will and something goes awry, you’re wrong.”

Adkins recalled that in 2003 on the 17th floor of the A level in the Hennepin County Government Center, Susan Berkovitz, involved in a contested probate, murdered her cousin and tried to murder her cousin’s lawyer, Richard Hendrickson. The dispute was over her father’s estate, of which the victim was the conservator.  Hendrickson recovered and went on to assist other attorneys through Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

But the shooting taught us nothing, Adkins said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Learn how to be safe

Adkins refers to his law clerk, Chase Passauer, who was killed by client Ryan Petersen, as his hero. Adkins was in trial in Washington County when he got a text from his client, Petersen, who said he needed help right away. Actually, he got about 60 texts although he told Petersen he was in court and would get back to him. Turns out Petersen was under the influence of heroin, cocaine, human growth hormones and steroids, and in possession of a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun. He went to Adkins’ office apparently intending to shoot him, but Adkins wasn’t there. Passauer was, and Petersen shot him eight times in the chest. Petersen was sentenced to life in prison without parole, leaving Passauer’s family and friends to grieve.

“You’ve got to learn how to be safe,” Adkins said. He has a lock on his door and a camera recording the scene, and said he does not meet with “drop in” clients. Originally he wanted an “open door” to his practice, but “that’s a luxury you simply can’t afford.”

Safety is every lawyer’s issue

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