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Safety is every lawyer’s issue

Barbara L. Jones//August 30, 2019

Safety is every lawyer’s issue

Barbara L. Jones//August 30, 2019

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.”

But Adkins also said that the stress of the legal system for clients and lawyers is not something that can be “handled” and then set aside. There are resources for help, he said, noting that when Passauer was murdered, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, called him while he was at the police station. Lawyers must accept help, he said.

“We have lost eight criminal practitioners in the last five years to suicide,” he pointed out. The most recent was attorney Daniel Homstad of Apple Valley.

Be aware

Cambridge attorney John Lillie becomes emotional speaking about the day in 2011 in Grand Marais when his client, Daniel Schlienz, shot Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell, a trial witness and a bailiff. Schlienz was upset because he was sentenced to a year in jail for a conviction of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, not the sentence he was expecting. He was not in custody and was able to go to his car, get a gun, and bring it into the courthouse where there were no metal detectors. He shot Scannell three times. (Scannell later had his own issues with criminal sexual conduct and is no longer the county attorney. Schlienz became ill in jail and died days after the shooting.)

Having an emotional reaction is not a negative thing, Lille said. That’s how his post-traumatic stress comes out, he said at the bar convention. “It’s my version of critical debriefing,” he said. What you’re seeing now is that you don’t know how the PTSD from this stuff works. You don’t know when it’s going to come out or how it’s going to come out.”

The practice of law takes a toll, said Lillie, and lawyers need to address it, with professional help when necessary, he said. “There are plenty of therapists and counselors available. They are lawyers for our heads,” Lillie said.

One challenge for the lawyer is trying to really understand the client’s point of view. “You’re a social worker, you’re a counselor,” he reminded bar convention attendees.  “It’s part of our service.” Clients’ cases are weighing on them, even if they are not new to the system. “They’re hyper-focused on it.” Schlienz felt that everybody was against him and had mistreated him, Lillie said.  He tried to manage Schlienz’s reactions and tell him that the prosecutor was doing his job. “They come to you upset and they leave upset,” Lillie said. “We live in a more and more entitled world, where everybody only looks through the lens of how something affects them.”

Some of the clients are not only worried, but have serious mental health issues, Lillie said.  “Be more aware of this,” he told lawyers. Or, like Petersen, they may be under the influence or addicted to substances. “I know there are some prosecutors here (at the bar convention) and they deal with this a lot,” Lillie said.

“You’re making yourself a better attorney to be aware of these things,” he said.

Adkins put it another way. “If people are making you crazy, think about why.”

Another time to trust your instincts is when accepting cases, Lille said. “You don’t have to take these cases,” he said. “You want to be home for your kids.”  He readily acknowledges than denying or terminating representation can be easier said than done, especially for new attorneys.  Judges won’t always allow a lawyer to withdraw from a case, he said, but Lillie wishes they would try to understand what a general practitioner deals with.

An attorney needs to turn down a client where the representation is harmful to him or her, Lillie told Minnesota Lawyer. One way to help a client understand that the representation isn’t appropriate or isn’t working is to remind them that they deserve an attorney who is 100% committed to the case. “I’m not serving their best interests and I don’t want to impair my other clients.”

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