Less than 10 minutes after the tragic murder-suicide that rocked the Atlanta legal community on Friday afternoon, Philip J. Marzetti, the managing partner of the local office of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, received an e-mail from his office administrator.
It was an e-mail that sent him hurrying to a crime scene outside the building where one of his employees, legal secretary Raven Buckley, 25, lay dead, shot to death by a man police say she had dated. That man, Jermaine Acevedo, 30, was the employee of a temporary agency who'd been working in the Paul Hastings' records center since January. After shooting Buckley, he turned the gun on himself.
By the time Marzetti got to the courtyard outside the Bank of America building in Midtown that houses his firm's offices, he said police and building security already were swarming about, and yellow crime scene tape spanned the area containing the picnic table where Buckley and Acevedo had been when their verbal argument escalated into violence.
"This is not something that I was expecting," said Marzetti, who sounded weary in a telephone conversation late Monday afternoon.
Marzetti wasn't expecting the tragedy, but he moved quickly to deal with it. Foremost in his mind, he said, was how to help his firm, its workers and Buckley's family toward recovery.
That effort began with the idea of connecting people to one another, whether therapeutically or personally. Two full-time grief counselors were on site at the firm Monday, he said, and would stay as long as needed. One of the firm's senior human resources people flew in from Los Angeles to help out.
"We've had a lot of traffic," Marzetti said. "When I was up in the lobby at noon there were probably 10 people up there sitting and waiting to speak with the grief counselors."
Also, he said, "We've set up a number of places around the firm for employees to come and talk, have a donut, have a coffee."
Today, Marzetti said, the firm will hold a private memorial service to honor Buckley's life. A 2004 graduate of the University of Georgia, "Raven was a big Georgia Bulldogs fan so ... some people are going to wear red and black," Marzetti said.
Lisa Jordan Spires, who worked with Buckley in the firm's immigration department before leaving in January to pursue a journalism career, said she was shocked when she learned of her former colleague's death.
The two had kept in touch via e-mail, Spires said, because Buckley -- who had a degree in journalism -- also wanted to pursue a career in the field and had asked her questions about a freelance career.
Buckley was "just one of the nicest people I've ever met, just genuinely nice," Spires said. "Very helpful, a really positive attitude. I never saw her down."
Part of the recovery process, Marzetti said, is helping survivors connect to one another and feel that they are doing something positive. In that regard, he said, the firm is collecting cards that will be sent to Buckley's family, has set out condolence books for her co-workers to sign and is planning to set up a fund that allows employees to contribute to her family.
He also said he's grateful for the support he's received from Atlanta's legal community. He said Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. called him and offered his office's grief counseling services; the Partnership Against Domestic Violence made a similar offer.
AFTER THE GRIEF
Part of a firm's recovery from tragedy, of course, goes beyond human resources issues and grief counseling. Inevitably a firm in this situation must assess its possible liability.
"Our primary focus is Raven, her family, her friends and co-workers and the health of the office and the people here," Marzetti said. "I've not been spending any time worrying about our liability, and I don't expect us to have any."
But Claud L. "Tex" McIver III, a partner at labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, said litigation over the Buckley shooting was a possibility because litigation always is possible in situations such as this.
"There's no question at all Paul Hastings will be involved in the litigation" if there is any, he said, explaining that plaintiffs could allege that the firm didn't screen Acevedo properly before employing him as a temporary worker.
"This poor guy, if he's a temporary worker, probably didn't have much money, so they'll go for the deep pocket and that could be Paul Hastings or probably Bank of America, too," McIver said. "It's a hunt for the deep pocket. And I'm sure, like we do, they've got substantial insurance."
Marzetti said his firm, which prohibits employees from having weapons at the office, did a criminal background check on Acevedo, as it does on all workers, before bringing him on board. "We did a background check on him and it came out clear," he said. "It's interesting. He had fine references and passed the background check with flying colors."
Joan Krull, the owner and president of Legal Pros Inc., the temporary agency that employed Acevedo and placed him with the firm, declined to comment on whether her company had checked Acevedo's background. She did say this was the first time Legal Pros had placed him.
Ron Campbell, the spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, said he did not know if Acevedo had a criminal record. He also did not know to whom the gun was licensed. "At this point, the investigation is really over," he said. "It's not like we're going to charge anybody."
Paul Hastings isn't the first law firm to deal with tragedy.
In December 2006, a former client of Chicago intellectual property law firm Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer entered the firm's offices, chained the doors shut behind him and shot four people, according to news reports; in October 2007, a man reportedly angry over a divorce settlement entered the offices of Giordano & Giordano in Alexandria, La., and shot five people, killing two.
But perhaps the best-known incident of violence in a law firm occurred 15 years ago in San Francisco, when a disgruntled former client of the now-defunct law firm Pettit & Martin stepped off an elevator in the firm's high-rise building and opened fire, killing eight people and wounding six others before taking his own life.
Sheldon M. Siegel, now a senior attorney at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton in San Francisco, was there that day.
"It was really hard," he says now. "There's really no playbook for this type of situation. It's really hard to deal with."
The firm brought in grief counselors, he recalled, and placed flowers at each spot where someone had died. The firm also put out journals where co-workers could record their memories of the deceased.
But perhaps the most lasting means of recovery, he said, was the birth of a nonprofit group called the Legal Community Against Violence.
Founded by Pettit & Martin lawyers and others in the Bay Area legal community just days after the shootings, the group now employs six lawyers, has offices in San Francisco and Chicago, and offers free nationwide assistance to community groups wanting to prevent gun violence and to legislators and government officials looking to adopt, defend or challenge local gun regulations, according to its executive director, Robyn Thomas.
One of the group's board members, Randal B. Short, a former Pettit & Martin attorney now with Sheppard Mullin, said that founding the group was therapeutic.
"I think it was a way to try to make something positive happen out of that tragedy, and it's an organization that is still alive and well and very much stronger," Short said. "I think all of us who have been involved in that are very glad we took that step."