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Be Careful Whom you Choose to Represent – New Client Screening Process

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By Paul Fisher1

Attorneys come across extremely difficult clients more often than they would like. Some of these difficult clients may have a high conflict personality disorder or at least some of the elements of a high conflict personality. People with high conflict personalities get themselves into trouble more frequently than the rest of us because of how they view the world and how everyone else views them. Representing these clients takes a big toll in emotional and physical energy on their attorneys. Unless these clients are avoided by careful screening, they can quickly become the 10% of the practice that causes 90% of an attorney’s grief.

Before discussing how to screen a prospective high conflict personality client, a brief foundation is necessary. What are these people like? How do we identify them? What follows is a very brief, and to a degree, simplistic guide to high conflict personality disorders observed in attorneys’ practices.

Be alert to these characteristics shared by high conflict personalities of all types:

  • They believe that their distorted or exaggerated views of a situation are accurate, making it difficult for them to understand why others do not agree with them.
  • They tend to disagree with their attorney’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their case and legal strategies.
  • When challenged they become defensive and entrenched.
  • There is a life-long pattern of blaming others and not taking responsibility for their actions.
  • They believe their needs are more important than anyone else’s, that problems are not their fault, and that rules are for other people.

Borderline: On a good day, they idealize their attorney: “You’re brilliant.” On a bad day, they devalue and berate: “You’re the worst.” Their coping mechanism is to control and manipulate. They have intense, angry outbursts and severe mood swings. They inflict abuse. Beware, they can appear sexually alluring and may abuse alcohol and drugs.

Histrionic: Fear of being ignored, dramatic and exhibitionistic. If not the center of attention, they may do something dramatic (make up stories, create a scene) to draw the focus of attention to themselves. Manipulate with drama, charm and temper tantrums.

Narcissistic: Have an extreme preoccupation with themselves, lack empathy, and seek to be treated as superior and admired. They may portray themselves as victims or may have a sense of entitlement, believing they are more talented, intelligent and attractive than others. Can be demanding and inflexible. May exploit personal and professional relationships. They do not accept responsibility for their behavior. Criticism is met with extreme reaction. Believe everything is someone else’s fault, not theirs.

Anti-social: Take advantage of people, and in the extreme some enjoy committing violent crimes to get what they want. Pathological lying and conning, and parasitic relationships with friends. Always fail to acknowledge responsibility for problems, callousness, no empathy, no interest in bonding emotionally, and no conscience. True antisocials are remorseless. Gathering accurate information from this client may be difficult. May try to deceive their attorney.

3 Step New Client Screening Process

It is often difficult to recognize a high conflict personality client during a first meeting. It may take several meetings to help you better understand who you are really dealing with. If you suspect you might be dealing with a high conflict personality prospective client, and you strongly prefer to not represent these charming people, don’t rush into the relationship.

Step 1: First meeting

When you react emotionally and physically to your prospective client, be aware and alert to these warning signs and to the interactions and reactions between you and the prospective client. Utilize these mindfulness skills:

  • Remain calm, deliberate and rational.
  • Do not be drawn in. Do not accept the prospective client on impulse.
  • Trust your primal instincts

Assign the prospective client homework, such as documents to bring in and list of witnesses with their contact information. Set another meeting.

Step 2: Between the first and second meeting

Process what you have experienced, your emotions and physical reactions. Try and figure out who your client really is and what they really want. Verify the information the prospective client gave you at the meeting. Discuss your concerns with colleagues, being careful to not reveal confidences. Prepare an interview plan and questions to ask the prospective client for the next meeting.

Step 3: At second meeting

Ask yourself:

  • Did the prospective client bring in all the documents you asked for? What is missing? Delve deeply into what is missing. Has the prospective client provided the names and contact information of all witnesses?
  • Do the claims appear supported or not?
  • Is there a perceived history of being wronged by people?
  • Do they fail take responsibility for their actions?
  • Are there prior attorneys? Prior marriages? Ex business partners?
  • What does this tell you about the prospective client?

All the while: be mindful of your physical and emotional reactions, WHY you are reacting. Always remain calm and professional.

If you are not convinced that this prospective client and you are a good fit, you might repeat step 2 in order to gather more information. You could chose to cut the prospective client loose. You might explain that you don’t have the expertise needed for this unique matter and someone else could handle it more efficiently and for much less money. Be prepared to give the soon to be ex prospective client contact information for the local bar association attorney referral service. Don’t just kick the prospective client out the door. Remain congenial. You don’t want to set yourself up as their next target.

If you chose to accept the challenge and proceed, inform the client of your management plan that must be followed:

  • Set out guidelines for the relationship
  • Define client responsibilities, including paying your bill on time. Always.
  • Set limits and boundaries
  • Set consequences

Be prepared for when this client asks you to relax the rules. If you agree you might suffer consequences.


If you remember only three things from this article, remember this:

  • When a prospective client walks into your office and after a short time you sense your body reacting, listen to it and heed it. Immediately set into action the 3 Step New Client Screening Process to help you decide whether to catch or release this prospective client. However, if you learn to manage these very challenging people, it will greatly enhance your reputation as an unstoppable and unflappable attorney.
  • If you have a client who is absorbing the majority of your physical and emotional energy, consider what has been discussed here and whether he or she might be a high conflict personality.
  • If so, immediately develop a client management plan for this person, including setting limits, making sure the client is current on your bill and as a last resort, firing this client. The prospect of immediate loss of income is offset by your improved mental health and time to network.

1Copyright by Paul Fisher