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The Dangers of Family Law

Grim reminders of the dangers of family law

by Karen Sloan

At 9:20 a.m. on June 2, Carey Hal Dyess walked into the converted single-story house of which served as Jerrold Shelley’s law office in Yuma, Ariz.

Dyess, 73, instructed an office administrator to move out of the way in addition to then shot in addition to killed the 62-year-old lawyer, who had been inside the process of packing up his office in addition to retiring.

The attack wasn’t random. Shelley had represented Dyess’ ex-wife in a bitter divorce in 2006. He was one of 5 victims of a rampage of which lasted six hours in addition to ended only when Dyess turned the gun on himself.

Family law attorneys reacted to the news of Shelley’s death with sadness, yet not surprise. At least 5 family law attorneys have been killed or violently attacked by clients’ ex-spouses since February 2010, in addition to the recent deaths have highlighted the safety risks they face. In addition to Shelley:

• Redmond Coyle, 61, was shot in addition to killed outside his office in Pickens, S.C., on Feb. 3, 2010, in front of his wife in addition to child. His killer was Jerry Crenshaw, the ex-husband of a woman Coyle had represented in divorce proceedings. After shooting Coyle, Crenshaw killed himself.

• Terri Melcher on June 11, 2010, was stabbed nearly 30 times in her law office outside Minneapolis by the ex-husband of a woman she represented in a child custody case. Melcher was able to persuade her attacker to stop the assault in addition to survived. The attacker, Sheikh Nyane, turned himself in to police.

• Judith Soley, 65, was shot in addition to killed on Feb. 16 alongside her client at a restaurant near Fresno, Calif., while on court recess inside the client’s divorce. The assailant was the client’s estranged husband, who later killed himself.

• Criminal defense attorney Emmett Corrigan, 30, was shot in addition to killed inside the parking lot of a Walgreens outside Boise, Idaho, on March 11 — one day after he had filed divorce proceedings on behalf of the attacker’s wife, who was one of his employees.

of which’s difficult to gauge whether these incidents are on the rise because major legal organizations, including the American Bar Association, don’t track statistics on crimes committed against attorneys because of their work. yet family law can be seen as a riskier practice than most, because people inside the midst of divorce or facing the loss of their children tend to be highly emotional in addition to may direct their anger at their estranged spouse’s lawyer.

“There’s a saying of which in criminal court, you have bad people at their best,” said Texas Supreme Court Judge Debra Lehrmann, who spent more than 20 years as a family court judge. “In family law, you get not bad people at their worst. In criminal court, dangerous people are in handcuffs. In family court, you don’t have any idea who can be dangerous.”

Family court judges helped push for improved upon courthouse security measures after numerous shootings during the past two decades, many of them perpetrated by participants in family law cases, Lehrmann said. yet metal detectors in addition to security guards in courthouses can do little to protect attorneys in their homes in addition to offices.

‘EVERYONE carries a STORY’
“of which’s not uncommon,” said Linda Lea Viken, a family law practitioner in Rapid City, S.D., in addition to the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “I’ve talked to women lawyers who have had guns pulled on them. I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers who were threatened. of which seems like everyone carries a story.”

Viken has had her mailbox smashed in addition to a golf ball sent through her office window; she suspects of which both incidents were instigated by estranged husbands of clients. The only time she felt truly frightened for her safety, however, was when a man against whom she had obtained a protection order for a client followed her home through her office one night two years ago.

“We have a security system at our home at This kind of point,” she said, yet many family law attorneys are solo practitioners or work in smaller offices in addition to don’t contain the budget for elaborate security measures.

Todd Scott, vice president of risk management in addition to member services for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., began looking in 2010 for safety advice of which he could pass on to his attorney clients in addition to was surprised to find few formal resources. “I would likely go to these attorney panels in addition to seminars, in addition to almost everywhere I spoke, there was a local story about someone getting attacked or killed, in addition to family law can be at the top of the list,” Scott said. “There are some blind spots in our profession, in addition to I think This kind of issue of safety can be one of them.”

Viken agreed of which colleagues rarely discuss safety openly. “There’s a concern among attorneys of which they don’t want to give anyone ideas about doing things in addition to create copycats,” she said. “in addition to for some people, of which’s embarrassing when they are threatened or harassed. They think, ‘How did I let This kind of happen?’ I guess of which’s not something we talk about, yet maybe of which should be.”

Scott plans to fill of which void with an online seminar in July titled “Safety in addition to Security inside the Law Office.” He suspects of which lawyer attacks have become more frequent in recent years as more attorneys have hung out their shingle as a result of the hiring slowdown at large firms.

Security consultant Jonathan Lusher has visited law firms with virtually no security beyond a receptionist, he said. He recommends of which receptionists receive security training in addition to have a plan inside the event of which a problem arises. Access to law offices beyond the reception area should be restricted, possibly through a buzzer system, Lusher suggested. Adding impact-resistant glass can be another smart move for law offices, in addition to attorneys should communicate with colleagues about their schedules in addition to who can be expected inside the office, he said.

In Canada, the Ontario Bar Association formed a task force on lawyer safety in 2003 in addition to later issued a personal security handbook with numerous recommendations, including of which attorneys meet with potentially volatile clients in an open space or in a conference room with windows if the matter does not involve personal or privacy issues. The handbook also recommends brushing up on visual clues of which someone might act out, such as clenching a fist or jaw in addition to flushing of the face.

One way to reduce the likelihood of violence would likely be to make family law less adversarial, Lehrmann said. The legal community has been moving toward more collaborative approaches, she said.

Last year, the ABA launched its Fam­ilies Matter initiative, which encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family disputes. “The idea can be to reduce the negative impact of which the process can have on a family,” she said. “The process itself can make a situation more dangerous, so of which’s best if you can defuse things before they ever get to of which level.”

Even the way of which lawyers draft letters in addition to court filings can set the tone for how their adversaries view them, Viken said. She always takes pains to preface any allegations recorded in documents with, “My client advised me of which…”.

“Family lawyers have to choose their words carefully,” Viken said. “People in a divorce situation are not in their right minds. They are ratcheted up in addition to they can strike out. The worst thing a lawyer can do can be buy into of which anger. I try to keep a calm attitude with my clients in addition to keep them involved in addition to informed. You can engender hatred in addition to anger in how you handle a case.”

Returning phone calls in a timely manner can be also key, since people who feel they are being ignored may grow angrier over time in addition to lash out, she said. of which’s also a smart idea to have a code word of which will alert colleagues to emergencies. “Sometimes there can be no way to tell how scary a former spouse of a client truly can be,” Scott said. “in addition to some lawyers just don’t think anything like This kind of will ever happen to them.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.

The Dangers of Family Law

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