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Dallas family-law lawyer Kathryn Kollmeyer knew her client was distraught, but she didn’t have a clue he would fatally shoot his roommate at her office on Aug. 17 and turn the gun on himself. Kollmeyer is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, but she says brandishing a handgun wouldn’t have helped her prevent the gunman from shooting himself and his roommate in the lobby of her law office on Stemmons Freeway. She’s thankful, instead, for the ladies’ restroom where she and five others at the office sought refuge after hearing the shots. “I think the key is having lots of exits in your office so you don’t have to go out that front door, go anywhere near that reception room, or the conference room,” says Kollmeyer, a sole practitioner. While incidents like the one that left two men dead at Kollmeyer’s office are rare, lawyers handling divorces and custody cases are more likely than other lawyers — even criminal-defense attorneys — to encounter emotional, if not unstable clients, some packing firepower. At the least, the family-court clients may be stressed out enough to go after someone they blame for their problems. “The nuttiest people in the system are the ones fighting over kids because they get just so enraged at the prospect of losing their children that they lose all equilibrium. In criminal law, in large measure, your defendants are somewhat cowed,” says criminal-defense lawyer David Mitcham of Houston. “They just basically want to go home.” Mitcham had a brush with violence in the early 1980s when he was working as a prosecutor. Mitcham, a partner in Patchen & Mitcham, was robbed at gunpoint at his house, but he believes he was the victim of random violence and not the target of someone upset with his efforts in the courthouse. But how do lawyers, especially those who practice as solos or in small firms and those who handle family-law work, ward off crazy clients? Kollmeyer says she will be more careful in client selection, although she admits it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. It really comes down to common sense, says family-law lawyer Robert Clark of Houston. “You figure that most of these are just people blowing off steam for the most part,” says Clark, who says he’s been threatened both verbally and in writing. “But you can’t assume people aren’t going to carry through with something because in family-law cases you can take away their kids.” Clark, a sole practitioner, says he’s never called the police on a crazy client — or on one of their relatives or former relatives — but he has sought court orders to keep people from threatening him. Once, he got an injunction against his client’s mother, who was calling up everyone involved in the case and making bizarre statements. In 1996, Clark says the angry ex-husband of a client came into his office with a handgun stuck into his waistband. Clark says he immediately asked the man to leave, which he did, although not before yelling some choice words at the lawyer who represented his ex-wife in their divorce. “I will say this: of the attorneys I know … the ones that keep weapons in their office for defense are all family attorneys. There’s not one criminal-defense lawyer that I know who keeps a loaded gun in their desk,” he says. Donn Fullenweider, a veteran family-law lawyer in Houston, says he’s not about to pat down people who come into his office, or install a metal detector, but he tells everyone at his office to be cautious. “Early in my career I had some people who were pretty scary,” he says. Like Clark, Fullenweider says he’s been threatened. He was most upset when someone called his house and told his wife that her husband would be a dead man by the end of the day. Another time a lawyer threatened him during a hearing; the judge got the bailiff to watch both of them until they got out of the courthouse. But Fullenweider of Fullenweider & Associates says there’s little that lawyers can do to prevent threats. “I think being a lawyer is relatively safe and I’ve got to say it’s part of modern society that crazies are apt to shoot,” he says. “I don’t think we should panic.” CLIENT SCREENING One of the most memorable incidents of violence involving clients and guns in Texas was in 1992, when Arlington lawyer George Lott went on a shooting rampage in the Tarrant County courthouse, killing two lawyers and wounding a judge. Lott was convicted, sentenced to death and executed. Hours after the shooting, Lott confessed during a television interview, saying he shot up the courtroom to protest what he characterized as an unfair 2nd Court of Appeals ruling during his divorce in 1990 that lost him custody of his son. While Lott’s apparent despair stemmed from a custody case, he took action in the courthouse, instead of at a small law office like the one Kollmeyer shares with seven other lawyers. And security at courthouses has tightened since the Lott shooting. Charles Awalt, a sole practitioner in Dallas, agrees with Fullenweider and Clark there’s not much lawyers can do to prevent people from acting violently — other than trusting gut instincts. If he ever feels threatened or uncomfortable staying alone in a room with an emotionally unstable client, he calls in a colleague. “Other than that, I don’t know what you could do,” says Awalt, past chairman of the State Bar of Texas’ General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section. Security has not been a concern for members of the section, he says. Thomas Curtis, a partner in Stapleton, Curtis & Boswell of Harlingen, Tex., says law office design can help protect lawyers and staff from disturbed clients if the reception room is isolated from the rest of the office. That wasn’t a big concern, though, when the firm moved into a new building in June, he says, since lawyers in the small firm do little family law. “I was in an office in Weslaco the other day that sort of had that kind of design that had a kind of walled-off waiting room. You have a sort of teller window,” Curtis says. “It’s sort of antiseptic and doesn’t lend itself to much decorative flair.” Kollmeyer, who was blindsided by the shooting at her office, says it seems the only way to keep violence out of the office is to be very careful in client selection. But she says she still is stunned that her client, Duane Eric Becton, was upset enough to shoot and kill his roommate, Joseph Onezine, minutes after they agreed to a deal calling for Onezine to buy Becton out of a house they bought together. Kollmeyer says she asked Becton and Onezine to wait in the reception area of her office while she prepared the documents. (As a sole practitioner, she does her own typing.) As she started working on the papers, she heard a loud sound. “I thought a file cabinet had fallen. I heard it again and again, and I started smelling gunpowder. I knew what happened,” Kollmeyer recalls. After the shooting, a receptionist ran out of the lobby and into the back offices, so upset she couldn’t speak, Kollmeyer says. She says she herded the receptionist, another lawyer and three other employees into the women’s restroom, where they locked the door for safety. “I know we are very lucky that Duane was just upset about the two of them, because he could have systematically gunned down each office we were in and got all of us,” Kollmeyer says. “I’m going to be very cautious about the types of cases I accept.”

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