Fisher Mediation
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Mindfulness in managing high conflict clients, and how to fire them

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by Paul Fisher

The attorney-client relationship with a high conflict personality client can easily become dysfunctional. These clients are intensely challenging when they claim to be the victim and do not accept responsibility. They have a sense of entitlement, are difficult to negotiate with and at worst, may berate their attorney. This concluding article summarizes the different high conflict personalities, discusses a powerful tool to help manage them, and how, as a last resort, to fire such a client.

Borderline personality hallmarks are, “I hate you, don’t leave me.” These individuals are the ones most often found in litigation. Their coping mechanism is to control and manipulate. They have intense, angry outbursts and severe mood swings. On a good day, they idealize their attorney. On a bad day, they devalue and berate.

Narcissistic personalities have an extreme preoccupation with themselves, lack empathy, and want to be treated as superior. They have no sensitivity to others’ needs, and portray themselves as victims. They may have a sense of entitlement. They do not accept responsibility for their behavior. Histrionic personalities fear being ignored, are dramatic and have exhibitionist qualities. They manipulate with charm and temper tantrums. They may exaggerate, create detailed non-existent facts and attempt to persuade attorneys that they are victims.

Antisocial personality trademarks include: aggressiveness, charm, deceit for their own benefit, disregard for safety of others and themselves, desire to dominate others, impulsiveness, playing the victim and a lack of empathy. They desire revenge for what they believe are past injustices. Also known as sociopaths, these individuals are loveless. Their lack of remorse makes it difficult to negotiate with them.

Enablers adopt or agree with the high conflict person’s distorted view of reality. Enablers pretend nothing is wrong. When the enabler supports the high conflict person’s distorted worldview, the high conflict person becomes more confident in their position and may blame others for their own acts. The enabler’s “helpfulness” is part of the problem, not the solution.

According to psychiatrist Christine D. Forest, many people have one or more characteristics of at least one high-conflict personality disorder. However, only 5 percent of the population displays all symptoms of borderline, histrionic, narcissistic or antisocial personality. Manage these clients by being aware of them, patient and empathic. Finding ways to present reality to this client in a fashion that respects their limited worldview is more advantageous than criticizing or threatening them.

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. They will then escalate their demand for attention.

Set clear boundaries and maintain them. Do not get pulled into their world. Set limits on when and how you communicate. Do not allow yourself to be seduced, and do not believe everything you are told. Verify what your client says before acting on it. Keep their expectations reality-based. Patiently stand your ground.

What we do as attorneys depends on what is going on inside ourselves. We are all limited by our thoughts, emotions and habits. Be deliberately aware of what is going on in yourself and your environment, moment to moment. This gives you the opportunity to notice things that influence you, such as emotions and physical sensations, which can distract us from what we should be paying attention to. Mindfulness allows us to understand others and to respond with compassion and empathy. It helps eliminate emotional and physical distractions that interfere with good judgment.

Consider what is good for your professional relationship and the client. It may be necessary to detach from your reactions, to calm your mind and body and then come back to the moment. Then calmly reply. With practice this can be done in moments.

Some high conflict personality clients attempt to take over their attorney’s life, or are combative, abusive and do not follow advice. Forest indicates there is no need to let the relationship get that far. As soon as you realize you have a high conflict client that is causing too many problems, begin building a case for termination. There will be reasons to fire the client but they must be objective, not personal.

Create dissonance professionally. When the client is overly demanding of your time, set reasonable limits on when you will meet or speak, or space meetings farther apart. When the client does not want to meet or speak with you, require the client to meet you frequently. Ask that the client bring a check to pay fees current each time he or she visits. Enforce these boundaries.

Reframe the relationship. When the client continually makes outrageous demands of you, indicate that another attorney who is able to meet these demands would better serve the client. When it is possible to frame the legal issues as requiring the expertise of an attorney specialized in that area, suggest the client seek such an attorney.

Give them enough rope. Keep a record of all the ignored requests for information, ignored proposals, advice, warnings, missed appointments and failure to keep current on billings. Be patient while building your case. Maintain sanity by conferring with colleagues and detaching emotionally.

Many of these clients do not have a good understanding of reality. When you want to terminate representation, calmly and patiently have the client face the reality they are trying to avoid. During that time, provide the client with a CYA letter, summarizing the advice not followed, missed meetings, bills not paid and so on. Always communicate on a professional level and never on a personal level. For the client who does not listen and does not want to hear your analysis and advice, do not continue trying to convince them. Do not create a power struggle. Let them struggle with themselves. “This is as far as I can go. This is your case. This is final.”

[The content of this article is provided for information purposes only, are guidelines and are not absolute rules and do not constitute legal advice. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made regarding the accuracy of the information. Every case and attorney is different. Use your own judgment as appropriate for the circumstances of each unique case.]

Acknowledgments: This series would not have been possible without the help of Dr. Christine Forest, an invaluable resource. Irving Zaroff, JD, LMFT, reviewed one chapter. The following authors have greatly enriched the series: Kathie S. Nichols, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., Sherrie Bourg Carter,Brian Luke Seaward, Theodore Millon, Seth Grossman, Katie Evans, J. Michael Sullivan, Martha Stout Ph.D., and of course, the ["Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed, of the American Psychiatric Association."]