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Identifying and Managing Histrionic Personality Clients

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by Paul Fisher

Second in a Series: This series will discuss the four most common high conflict personalities — borderline, histrionic, narcissistic and antisocial — in an effort to help lawyers identify and better manage such individuals. Part one appeared on Jan. 28, 2011.

Histrionic personality disorder makes clients see things differently. “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.” (Sherrie Bourg Carter,["Representing Mentally and Emotionally Disturbed Clients in Family Law Practice"], 22 [American Journal of Family Law] 128 (Fall 2008)). For these clients, conflict is driven by personalities rather than issues or the money involved.

Sometimes, patterns emerge in interpersonal conflicts, including denial of inappropriate behavior, inability to accept responsibility for their actions, avoiding mental health treatment, and blaming others. (Kathie S. Nichols, ["Breaking Impasses: Strategies for Working with High Conflict Personalities,"] 20 American Journal of Family Law 226 (Winter 2007)). How these difficult people are handled can escalate or contain conflict.

Histrionic personality disorder exists in 2 to 3 percent of the general population. The hallmarks of histrionic personality are fear of being ignored, drama and exhibitionism. (Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., ["High Conflict People in Legal Disputes,"] HCI Press, 2005). “If they are not the center of attention, they may do something dramatic (make up stories, create a scene) to draw the focus of attention to themselves.” ([Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] (4th ed.)). They have underlying dependency needs, which they attempt to fulfill by seeking attention, affection and stimulation, including seductive or sexually provocative behavior. They appear confident and self-assured but are actually deeply insecure and have shallow feelings. They manipulate with drama, charm and temper tantrums as they seek attention, affection and approval.

Attorneys should beware that histrionic personalities may exaggerate stories, create detailed non-existent facts and attempt to persuade you that they are victims. They are not concerned about truth if distortion tells a better story. There are frequent crises, emergency phone calls and dramatic reports about opponents. Emotions may be used to get your attention and to persuade you to take action.

It’s easy to become absorbed and seduced. Before acting, ask the histrionic client for supporting documents and witness verification. Independently verify the client’s claims. Give the client full attention, including eye contact. Avoid distractions, and don’t interrupt with questions. Be empathetic. Support the person, but don’t immediately support the position. Supporting unverified claims validates high conflict behavior. Maintain consistent emotional support. Do not be excessively supportive or withdraw support. If the client feels you are pulling away, it can be seen as rejection and lead to blame or worse. Expect and prepare for crises. This is a test of how you manage the situation and the relationship. Take the first crisis call as soon as possible to avoid enhancing client insecurities.

Set clear boundaries and maintain them. Do not get pulled into their world. Set limits on when and how you communicate. Do not give out your cell number. Don’t be seduced physically or emotionally. Avoid bending boundaries to reduce emotional intensity. Insist that your retainer stay current because once this client falls behind, you have lost control. Remain professional and do not allow the client to be abusive.

It is difficult to compromise a dispute because the histrionic person might see it as acknowledgement of their contribution to the problem. Reframe the reason for compromise. There are enormous benefits for your client in reaching settlement. Do a trial budget, being as specific as possible. Include work for pleadings, discovery, motions, preparation for trial and trial. Include fees for reporters at depositions and expert witnesses, as well as incidental costs. Discuss the time your client needs to dedicate to the litigation and trial, and how it will impact his or her life. Objectively analyze each issue that might come up at trial. Do it in a way that does not challenge the client’s honesty. Be calm and non-threatening, focusing on the conflict details. Point out that there may be different views on each issue. Emphasize that even if your client is right, there is the risk that a judge or jury will believe the other party, and the client will have to pay the attorney fees and costs and lose substantial time.

A recent illustration of this: Before the mediation, I spoke with plaintiff’s attorney, who complained that he was receiving several multi-page e-mails from his client daily indicating she did not want to mediate; that she did not trust him; and arguing why she was right, defendant was wrong, and why she should go to trial. During mediation caucuses with plaintiff and her attorney, plaintiff initially was very charming. She eventually berated her attorney, claimed she did nothing wrong and refused to take responsibility for any of the conflict. When I discussed the difficult legal and factual issues, she tried to deflect the issues by changing the subject, having emotional outbursts and accusing her attorney. When her attorney questioned her about apparent fabrication of new facts, she berated him.

After 10 hours of mediation, we settled the case. The attorneys dictated the terms of a settlement agreement. When it was time to sign, plaintiff changed her mind, refused to sign the agreement and left in a rage. Over the next two days, I had many phone conferences with plaintiff’s counsel. The client had bombarded him with lengthy e-mails rearguing all the factual and legal issues and complaining about what a poor job he did. The attorney told me his client was driving him crazy and that she owed him a lot of money. Eventually, he got his client to agree to a conference call with both of us. We focused on the costs of trial, the time it would take, and the possibility that the jury might agree with the other party – not whether she was right or wrong. I supported the person and what she’d gone through but not supportive of her position. After the conference, the client signed the settlement agreement.

The attorney had not been paid in 30 to 45 days. Consequently, the client was getting a free ride. Since she was not financially invested in the process, she was much less flexible than she perhaps would have been otherwise, and the attorney had completely lost control over her.

Attorneys are not psychologists and labeling clients has serious pitfalls. Not all personality disorders respond to the same treatment. Be supportive of the histrionic client’s emotional needs, their sense of being wronged, threatened or damaged. Do not get drawn into the drama. Consider suggesting that the client see a mental health professional to help relieve the stress of the conflict. Most importantly, do not ignore this type of client when frustrated or angry, or you may be their next victim. Above all, take care of yourself first, confer with colleagues, and gain perspective.