Tips for Attorneys Dealing with High Conflict Clients

As a litigation attorney, I know that I will have to spend a significant portion of my time on high-conflict cases in which the opposing party is high-conflict and/or the opposing attorney is high-conflict. This is what I consider to be an inevitable occupational hazard in litigation, especially, divorce litigation. However, dealing with a high-conflict personality becomes even harder when you learn that a case is high-conflict because of your client or that your client has made you the object of her rage, while just recently, you seemed to have enjoyed a decent relationship with this client.

Just as we have learned to spot high-conflict behavior over time, high-conflict people have also learned to hide their behavior for a period of time. This shows their true chameleon nature. Eventually, you, as the high-conflict person’s attorney, will become her target of blame, and she will eventually see you as her enemy.

Based on Bill Eddy’s research and experience in dealing with high-conflict clients, I can share a few tips on how to spot them more easily or identify high-conflict behaviors more easily, hopefully, before it’s too late. In an interview with Stephanie Francis Ward from the American Bar Association, Bill Eddy’s experience as a litigator, counselor, and high-conflict mediator can be very useful for attorneys having to deal with sleepless nights and a barrage of insults from high-conflict clients. If you look at my reviews, you can see the nature of these high-conflict people. They will turn to disparaging and ruining your reputation if they don’t get their way, regardless of how unreasonable they are.

  1. Who Are High-Conflict Clients?

High-conflict clients make up about 15-percent of the population, and about 10-percent will be personality-disordered, according to the National Institutes of Health. The remaining 5-percent may not fit the definition of being personality-disordered, but their high-conflict nature is toxic, nonetheless. For family law attorneys, I would venture to guess that about 20-percent of your clients will be high-conflict clients. You may have to deal with a narcissist involved in divorce, a borderline involved in divorce, or other Cluster B disordered individual. High-conflict clients exhibit behaviors that are not exhibited by the overwhelming majority of the adult population. Often, they are wolves in sheeps’ clothing because they seem very sweet at first, and you may believe their stories about their ex-spouses being high-conflict, and how they just don’t want to be in court anymore.

People suffering from personality disorders have fixed patterns of behavior that differ from the rest of us. They can become restless, swing quickly from loving you to hating you without warning and without cause. They may spend their energy on ruining your reputation, draining your finances, bullying you, and threatening legal action if you don’t do what they want, even if what they want is frivolous and even sanctionable. Because they lack insight and often feel unreasonably victimized, attempting to be rational and logical can be a huge waste of your time. They often love drama and may tell you that they know more than you do, and really, there is little you can do, except to try and ignore their crazymaking antics and bullying tactics and to seek a withdrawal as quickly as possible.

  1. A High-Conflict Client’s Demands and Complaints

There will be many unreasonable demands and complaints, increasing over time, and the high-conflict client will eventually turn on you and make you the target of her misplaced and inappropriate anger.

  • She will accuse you of running up her bill unnecessarily and maybe, he may not complain about your bill for one month, but complain about it the next, but typically, the complaining grows more frequent.
  • She may engage in histrionic behavior, becoming hysterical over small issues. She will use extreme words and consequences. For example, I had a client who kept bringing up bankruptcy and homelessness because of her litigation expenses, while demanding that I file additional cases against her ex-husband. I repeatedly explained that her litigation expenses were tied to the number of cases that she had pending against her as well as her ability to control some expenses by not filing certain cases. She would cry incessantly, then she would yell and blame others, and her life seemed to be perpetually filled with drama that she created. She went from one serious crisis to another at lightning speed.
  • She will demand that you place a different attorney on her case without adequate cause. He may also insist that he knows more than you do.
  • He will refuse to see anyone else’s point of view and will dig in his heels, regardless of how unreasonable his point of view may be.
  • She may have been diagnosed with a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or sometimes, even a personality disorder.
  • She will attempt to get third-parties involved in drama and will send emails to others, including your own staff, in an attempt to garner support for her unreasonable behavior.
  • He will spend an exorbitant amount of time calling you or your staff repeatedly asking the same questions.
  • She will send you lots of emails, marking them all as urgent, using all caps, blaming others, trying to corner others, or attempting to make irrelevant issues a priority.
  • She will have trouble managing her emotions, cycling between anger and victimization frequently. She will see you as “all good” or “all bad.” There will be nothing in between.
  • She will repeatedly express dissatisfaction with your representation but refuse to allow you to withdraw from her case.
  • She will threaten you with legal action, unwarranted bar complaints and damage to your reputation.
  • He will throw his apparent academic achievements around.
  1. Dealing with a Client with a Personality Disorder or a Difficult Personality

Because we can’t diagnose people with personality disorders unless we’ve received training to do so and have administered the requisite battery of inventories and tests to make such diagnosis, I’ve learned that it’s a futile effort. For me, a person who exhibits many of the characteristics or symptoms of a specific personality disorder, may as well have that disorder because high-conflict people can make perfectly rational people feel insane at times. These are some things that have worked for me.

If you’ve already taken this person’s case, paper everything. Memorialize conversations, have attorneys or other personnel from your firm involved in communications or conversations with them. High-conflict clients can overexaggerate, create drama unnecessarily, misconstrue your words, say one thing and do another, embellish and use over-the-top language in communications. They may spend their entire day writing emails, letters, reviews, in a calculated effort to tarnish your character. You can set your boundary once or twice, memorialize your concerns, and if necessary, review your ethical obligations, including “noisy” or “silent” withdrawals. Train your staff in dealing with unreasonable clients and disregarding threatening letters, emails, and calls. If you can, block them from communicating with you and your staff. A high-conflict client can wreak havoc on your entire business if you’re not careful because he will be motivated by drama and vexatious litigation or threats thereof.

You can briefly and non-emotionally draft one or two responses and persuade her to retain other counsel, but you’ll have to obtain the court’s permission if you’ve entered an appearance, obviously.

Set your boundaries and limits as to acceptable behavior and help them understand your firm’s representation agreement in writing once. Avoid any behaviors that can be construed by them to be abandoning or too authoritative, unless you really can’t because of your ethical responsibilities. Try to use words of empathy and respond only briefly to their emails, but if your emails are being used to bully you further, you may want to disengage. For example, if you refuse to file whatever this client demands because it may be frivolous, you can say, “I don’t think that filing this pleading will be in your best interests because it could be construed that you’re filing it only to annoy or harass the other person, and the court could sanction us. The last thing we need is to pay attorneys’ fees or sanctions for filing a frivolous pleading. I understand your frustrations, but there is a better way to achieve your desired result.”

There is always something that I can take away from each situation in dealing with a high-conflict client. Typically, these clients aren’t worth the frustrations and headaches that they can inflict on your entire staff, and with training, you can identify them sooner. If you have any reservations, it’s better to decline representation, no matter how much they plead with you. Attorneys have enough stress in their lives dealing with normal clients, so learn from your mistakes and learn how to disengage sooner, rather than later.

Fairfax Family Law and Divorce Lawyer: If you’re looking for an experienced Virginia family and divorce law attorney, contact Keithley Law, PLLC today by calling (703) 865-7710 and schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office. Our attorneys are experienced in high-conflict divorces and helping people navigate through the frustrations of divorcing a narcissist.

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