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Identifying and Managing Narcissistic Personality Clients

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by Paul Fisher

Third 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, borderline, appeared on Jan. 28. Part two, histrionic, appeared on Feb. 25, 2011.

Narcissistic personalities have an extreme preoccupation with themselves, lack empathy, and they need to be treated as superior and to feel admired. They are oblivious to their own behavior and portray themselves as victims. They generally make good first impressions, appearing confident and perhaps arrogant. They may have a sense of entitlement, seeing themselves as more talented, intelligent and attractive than others. Think your brother-in-law. They can be demanding and inflexible. They may exploit personal and professional relationships. (Kathie S. Nichols, “Breaking Impasses: Strategies for Working with High Conflict Personalities”, 20 American Journal of Family Law 226 (Winter 2007)). Most importantly, they do not accept responsibility for their behavior. Their need for affection and admiration is so great that criticism is met with an extreme reaction. They may see failure as unacceptable, becoming upset if they can’t win. They are self-centered, self-absorbed and have no sensitivity to others’ needs, interests or feelings. (Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, HCI Press (2005)).

Narcissistic personalities believe everything is someone else’s fault, not theirs. They are risk takers, disdainful of others and oblivious to the consequences of their own actions. Though they feel they have been victimized, their own behavior may have contributed to the conflict. They are frequently in disputes with their attorneys. Many successful people have some traits or moments of narcissism (not including myself). An overinflated sense of success and talent are characteristic of narcissistic personalities, and this often alienates those around them. (Sherrie Bourg Carter, “Representing Mentally and Emotionally Disturbed Clients in Family Law Practice”,22 American Journal of Family Law 128 (Fall 2008)). Narcissistic personalities constantly feel injured by life events. Because it cannot be their fault, they find fault with others and that leads to legal disputes.

Relationships are seen as opportunities for exploitation. Lying and exaggeration are common. In business relationships, they may be sued for breach of contract because they do not believe their actions are harmful when others do. In employment relationships, they may be sued for harassment because they are insensitive to how they impact others. In trust and estate or family business conflicts, they may sue or be sued because of their sense of entitlement, sense of superiority or their complete disregard for the interests and feelings of their relatives. (Eddy, citing D. Dutton, The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships, The Guilford Press, 1998.) Their sense of superiority and lack of empathy allows narcissistic personalities to be violent toward family and non-family.

Often the narcissist has no real control over their actions or behavior. They receive considerable negative feedback from society which leads to their anxiety and depression. As a result they may become abusive. Understanding this dynamic will help the attorney become more patient and empathic. (Interview with psychiatrist Christine D. Forest, M.D.) Narcissistic personalities have great difficulty reaching compromise and this leads to litigation because the court system is where narcissists can prove they are right. They may “forget” important information which is not discovered until it is too late, and then the client will deny any responsibility.

Compromise is difficult with this personality because they feel they have done nothing wrong, have not contributed to the conflict and are entitled to a better share of the outcome than the other party.

If their attorney confronts them with their own behavior, they become extremely defensive and go on the offensive against their attorney, or even fire the attorney, and find another who is more agreeable and provides the special treatment the client expects. This pattern may be repeated. Rather than confronting the client, be polite but firm, stressing that the attorney-client relationship is professional, not personal, and that the attorney’s opinions are professional not personal. (Forest) Beware of the prospective client with a history of discharged attorneys. Always ask why the prior relationships were ended.

Setting clear boundaries with the narcissistic client is necessary. While they will want to bend the rules because they feel they are exempt, doing so will make the relationship unmanageable. Be firm and consistent. Allow brief venting. If allowed free reign, this client will talk about themselves or rant for hours. Give this client positive feedback to support their sense of being wronged, victimized or damaged. Do not support unverified claims, however, or this will further fuel their desire for justice or retribution. Do not abruptly halt a conversation, pull away or reject the narcissist or they will feel rejected and retaliate.

A recent illustration of this: George bought a dry cleaning store and claimed the seller, Sam, did not disclose the store had been cited by the city for failure to clean up a leak of cleaning solvent waste, and it would cost $225,000 to remediate. Sam claimed George stopped making payments toward the purchase price. George and Sam were brothers-in-law, and George had borrowed the down payment from his wife’s wealthy, elderly parents. Sam claimed the waste was not his responsibility because he owned the business for only three years, and it had been run over 19 years, with each owner contributing to the mess. In caucus with Sam and his attorney, Sam said he sold the business to George because he didn’t want to deal with the citation and the clean up wasn’t his responsibility. He did not tell George before the sale because he needed the money to purchase another, larger dry cleaners. He was not concerned about his family relationships. He was disdainful of George, felt George was from an inferior family and had no business intelligence. He was confident a judge or jury would understand that he had little to do with the accumulated waste. While in the hallway, Sam’s attorney indicated that Sam would not listen to him, berated him when they discussed trial risks, and that Sam expected to be vindicated. Back in caucus with the attorney and Sam, we supported Sam’s sense of being victimized by the person he bought the store from, and by George who stopped paying on the purchase note. Once Sam felt personally supported, he was more trusting and was able to stop focusing on his emotions of being victimized and instead move his attention to solutions that would lead to resolution.

Suggest to this client the benefits of psychological counseling to relieve the stress of the conflict. There is no need to mention the narcissist’s behavior. Counseling may allow the client to be more flexible and make your relationship more tolerable and productive. Give your client full attention, including eye contact. Do not interrupt with questions. Be empathic. Be supportive of the person, but not immediately supportive of the position. Insist that your retainer be kept current because once this client falls behind, you’ve lost control.