Lawyers in family law frequently interact with a wide range of people, including clients, their supporters, opposing parties and self-represented litigants. These individuals may be grappling with various challenges, such as trauma, poor health, financial difficulties, isolation, or addiction. Unfortunately, when cases do not unfold as expected, some may direct their frustration at the lawyer and exhibit potentially dangerous behavior. They might display emotional volatility, a need for control, manipulative tendencies, and even pose threats.
It is not uncommon for lawyers to encounter people who consistently interrupt discussions, dominate conversations, speak loudly and display signs of disinterest or lack of understanding. They may feel agitated, depressed, angry, and believe they are victims or perceive unfair judgment.
Given the risks to their personal safety and professional livelihood, lawyers must take proactive measures to ensure their protection.
First, trust your instincts and pay attention to your gut feelings and intuition. If something feels off or potentially dangerous, take appropriate action to protect yourself.
Also, take time to seek professional support to engage the services of security professionals or consultants who can offer guidance and expertise in personal safety. They can help assess risks, provide training and develop customized safety plans. That may involve installing security cameras and alarms, ensuring proper lighting in common areas or changing locks. Also, it may be necessary to take additional security steps such as contacting the police or filing a restraining order.
Always stay calm and listen when faced with challenging situations. It’s important to remain composed and avoid reacting in a fight-or-flight manner. Also be sure to actively listen to the other person, even if you feel frightened or provoked. This creates a conducive environment for effective communication, de-escalation of a volatile situation and conflict resolution.
Even when experiencing fear or discomfort, make an effort to display empathy and maintain eye contact with the individual. Appropriate eye contact conveys attentiveness and understanding. An individual who feels heard and understood may be more likely to trust your intentions and be receptive to your suggestions.
Once a meeting, hearing, court appearance or task is concluded, it is vital to disengage from the person and remove yourself from their sight. This helps maintain a physical separation and minimizes the potential for further confrontation.
Continuously assess and mitigate risks in each situation through available documentation. In cases where there is a pertinent history involving emergency protection or restraining orders, breaches, criminal charges or mental health assessments, it is essential to prioritize obtaining copies of these orders and thoroughly reviewing their details. A proactive approach enables you to assess the risks involved and take appropriate measures to minimize them effectively.
Establish clear boundaries and define the limits of acceptable behaviour and communication with clients and other parties involved in the case, and ensure they are respected. For example, specify that all participants should allow others to speak without interruption. Make it explicit that disrespectful behavior, such as yelling, swearing or personal attacks, is unacceptable.
During the initial meetings with your client, communicate your working hours and availability, and any exceptions or periods of unavailability. Set expectations regarding response times for various types of communication. This helps manage client and party expectations and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings or frustration.
Regularly keep open lines of communication with colleagues, staff, and trusted friends or family members about your work and any concerns you may have. Keeping others informed can provide support and assistance when needed.
Use secure technology and protect confidential information by using secure communication channels, encrypted email services, and reliable password management tools. Be cautious about sharing sensitive data electronically.
Meet in safe environments and be aware of locations with increased risk. When meeting clients or other parties, ensure the setting is safe and conducive to productive discussions. Consider meeting in a neutral public space or having additional support present if necessary.
Do not forget to document your daily interactions. Keep detailed records and notes of all meetings, phone calls, emails and witnesses. This documentation can be invaluable in establishing patterns and addressing any potential conflicts or disputes that may arise.
Prioritize self-care for your physical and emotional well-being by treating your time as valuable as clients time. Engage in activities that promote relaxation and exercise regularly.
Continuing education and keeping informed on best practices are essential. Attend workshops or programs that focus on personal safety, conflict resolution, de-escalation techniques, best practices in client management, recognizing warning signs of aggression, or creating a safe working environment.
Finally, keep in mind that every situation is unique, and it is crucial to customize these guidelines according to the specific circumstances and requirements of your practice. Prioritizing personal safety, remaining vigilant and maintaining professional boundaries will contribute to a safe and more secure working environment.
Suchetna (Sue) Channan is a Calgary lawyer whose main areas of practice is family law.