Feeling Taken Advantage of by a Narcissist Client?
By Paul Fisher1
Hillary emails or calls and leaves messages for her attorney several times a day. Occasionally she shows up at his office demanding to see him. Her sense of urgency and endless venting, coupled with her sense of importance and feelings of superiority have taken their toll on her attorney. Feeling like he has lost control of their professional relationship, he has begun neglecting other and much more important clients and significantly large matters. Hillary, the defendant in a fraud case, claims she is the victim and insists the plaintiff is at fault. When her attorney mentions the difficulties of her case, Hillary has angry outbursts with him which exacerbates their already faltering relationship. Her failure to pay his bills for two months have made her attorney, Donald, question whether or not it is wise to proceed with several impending and time consuming depositions that are required for her case. He realizes that Hillary takes a hugely disproportionate amount of his time and emotional energy compared to the revenue her matter could represent. Worse, the ensuing aggravation that arises from his dealings with her have negatively impacted his personal life.
Donald might be suffering from an acute case of narcissistitus, a pain in the derriere caused by prolonged exposure to a narcissistic client. Unless treated aggressively this condition may become chronic and debilitating. Kidding aside, the scenario above describes some of the elements of a narcissistic personality, one of a variety of high conflict personality behavior. Some narcissists are very charming and exceedingly successful. They have a different world view than most other people which causes them to frequently be in disputes with others, including their attorneys. They believe their needs are more important than anyone else’s, that problems are not their fault, and that rules are for other people. They do not accept responsibility for their actions and find fault with others.
Setting limits with narcissists is necessary primarily for self preservation and secondarily to manage the client. Inform this client early on that though she is a very important client, you can reply to only one email per day and the reply may not be until late. The same is true for phone calls. Meeting without an appointment is disruptive to the rest of your practice and prohibited. Be sure to mention that you bill for most of the time you work on her matter, including emails and phone calls. Inform this client that bills must be paid on time. When this client falls behind you lose control of the relationship. Be prepared for this client to ignore the limits you set. If you bend the rules expect to be taken advantage of.
Gently gain control of the conversation. Some narcissists can vent endlessly, so allow only brief venting. Then direct the conversation into productive and critical areas. It may be tempting to ignore emails and phone calls, but be cautious to not let this client feel overlooked or dismissed. This could come back to haunt you.
When you discuss issues in the case be polite but firm. Be supportive of this clients emotional component but do not support unverified claims and defenses. Emphasize that your relationship is professional, not personal and that your opinions are professional, not personal. Do not be confrontational or this client will feel attacked and this will lead to arguments. Reframe the conversation from “The judge is likely to rule against you” to “I’m concerned the judge could interpret the events differently and believe the other party, even though you may have acted in good faith.”
1Copyright by Paul Fisher 2016