It was happenstance. The occasion was the Association for Women Lawyers’ 40th Women Judge’s Night in downtown Milwaukee. It was held only 24 hours after the Miller Coors workplace shootings, and I felt heavyhearted driving into downtown. Milwaukee County has been my lifelong home, and waves of emotion swept over me throughout this day as news unfolded.
Kim A. Lechner, Marquette 1996, is an attorney with the Washington County Attorneys Office. Her practice focuses in mental health commitments, guardianships, legal opinions, and child support.
The wonderful evening came to a close, and I was patiently waiting in the coat-check line. To pass the time, I asked the woman in front of me where she worked. The woman was Joyce Hastings, the editor of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine. Without hesitation, I told Joyce that the June 2019 edition of Wisconsin Lawyer has a permanent place on the corner of my desk.
What makes that particular edition so significant? One of the features is “The Threat of Violence: What Wisconsin Lawyers Experience,” written by Stephen D. Kelson. What more timely article for us to discuss in light of the violence at Miller Coors the previous day.
So why does this edition take up valuable desktop real estate? Personal experience, and quite simply, to help me mentor and train future lawyers. I have had three law school interns since the issue was published, and I gave it to each intern to read as part of their experience. I discovered that the information in the article is eye opening to these lawyers to be. Each intern told me that law school is not preparing students for this aspect of legal practice. In my view, awareness of this reality should be a mandatory part of law school curriculum.
I told Joyce that I found the article powerful and validating. It portrays a reality that is too often dismissed by colleagues, bosses, and non-legal employers as overreactive. That view contends that these are isolated incidents and statistically unlikely to occur. However, for those among us who have been victims of threats, innuendos, and violence, that perspective is further isolating and invalidating. For lawyers who voice fear for their safety to those who have organizational power to improve safety and nothing changes, it is unempowering and disturbing.
Twelve respondents to the survey cited in the article said that a threat or assault was at the hands of opposing counsel. This type of behavior is never defensible, even if justified by the perpetrator as zealous advocacy for a client’s position. Our common response as members of the State Bar of Wisconsin should be indignation and embarrassment. Whether this phenomenon is on the rise or decline is unknown.
When lawyers’ reports of innuendos, threats, and violence go ignored or are minimized, the myth is perpetuated among colleagues and law students that there is minimal to no risk of workplace violence in the practice of law. It may be uncomfortable, and it may put us ill at ease, but the conversation about workplace violence is one that we as a profession need to continue. In the end, doing so might save a life.
Twelve respondents to the survey cited in the article said that a threat or assault was at the hands of opposing counsel. This type of behavior is never defensible.
Meet Our Contributors
How has your career surprised you?
I am answering this question differently than I would have a month ago. As I write this, I am sitting in my dining room, with my work laptop, legal pads, statutes, and all the props that make my hastily put-together virtual office functional. This COVID-19 Safer at Home Order is happening near the finish line of my career. The irony is that on my first day working from home, my husband remarked that this reminded him of the days I was in law school. Yes, sitting at the same dining room table, in the same house, different paint, different décor, but where it all started!
I had a career before this one, when the dream of being a lawyer stirred. I graduated from Marquette Law School in 1996 and at the time dreamed of working as a lawyer in a child support agency, or serving the underserved, or in municipal law. I didn’t know if or how that path would unfold. But 24 years later, as deputy county attorney, I can say all those dreams did come true, and in a bigger and more fulfilling way than I could ever have imagined while studying at this very table. I wish I could have told myself then what I know now!
Kim A. Lechner, Washington County Attorneys Office, West Bend.
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