Red Flags for Lawyers and All Professionals: Spotting High Conflict Clients and Opposing Parties
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, CFLS
Most attorneys know that there are potential high conflict clients out there who can make your life miserable with numerous unreasonable demands, a preoccupation with blaming others (eventually you!) and sometimes present a risk for physical danger. Often, high conflict clients catch us by surprise in the middle of the case, after they started out seeming fairly reasonable. This is common, as high conflict clients know at some level that they are difficult and try to present their best side to us – perhaps in hopes that we will work wonders for them if they’re really nice to us. However, this often doesn’t last and their other “side” comes out and can be more or less extreme.
High conflict opposing parties can also present risks and sometimes are more of a threat. They have no investment in a relationship with you and they may create a more distorted fantasy of who you are and the power you have to hurt them. As the opposing counsel, you can become the focus of all of their anger and resentments.
Are There Warning Signs?
In most cases, there are some warning signs to watch out for. In general, notice if your client or the opposing party has:
• Lots of all-or-nothing thinking (their solutions to problems may seem unusually extreme)
• Unmanaged emotions (their reactions are way out of proportion, they can’t stop their angry moods or crying - or they are overly controlled, as if sitting on a powder keg)
• Extreme behavior (their history includes actions that 90% of people would never do)
• A preoccupation with blaming others (do they ever accept responsibility for anything?)
These four cues are common with high conflict clients. Watch out for your client’s extreme language about the other party, because someday they may say the same things about you and focus their anger on you. Also, notice if they go more than 30 minutes talking about someone else’s bad behavior, while accepting no responsibility themselves. Within 30 minutes, most people say things like: “I never should have married him.” “I should have ended the relationship with her long ago.” These statements are good signs.
Unfortunately, many high conflict clients won’t take responsibility for anything. That’s a bad sign. They have a “target of blame” that they focus on with great intensity when things go wrong. “It’s all his fault!” or “Her fault!” or “Your fault!” This target can change quickly, or include more than one person or group of people.
What Extreme Behaviors Could Occur?
If a high conflict client or opposing party has a personality disorder or some traits, that means that he or she has a narrower range of behavior that will repeat and repeat. Look for patterns. Does the person tend to spread rumors to other people? Run away from problems (like disappearing with the kids)? Send hostile emails or other communications over the Internet? Verbally assault someone they have a minor problem with? Get physical – like pushing or hitting – or worse? Making threats? Their most extreme behavior is what you are likely to see occur again at times of high risk (see below). You might ask what the worst conflict was in their lives – and how they dealt with it.
If the person has a history of loss of self-control, such as substance abuse, verbal confrontations, inability to remove himself/herself from conflicts, there is a higher risk of uncontrollable aggressive behavior. If the person has weapons, keys, friends with dangerous histories, or other indicators of easy ability to engage in dangerous behavior, that should be concerning. The biggest predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
What are Times of High Risk?
High conflict people tend to be most dangerous when they feel a sense of relationship loss – even if it’s not what someone else would see as a serious loss. For them, the losses tend to occur when they:
• Feel abandoned or are actually being abandoned by someone important in their lives
• Feel a loss of self-esteem and superior public image - especially being humiliated
• Feel loss of control over another person who they used to control
• Feel loss of control over events around them
• Feel loss of a pet or piece of property that they are very attached to
You can see that all of these types of losses frequently occur in legal cases – whether they are the loss of a life partner in divorce, loss of money or business in a lawsuit, loss of status in the community, and so forth. You can also see that lawyers are easily associated with these losses – either representing a client who experienced the loss (you didn’t do enough to prevent it) or representing the client who “won,” so that the opposing party holds you responsible for causing the loss to occur, even if you had nothing to do with the underlying facts of the case. You represent these losses in their eyes – and it’s easier to hate you than the other party, with whom your client may still be attached regardless of the facts of how they’ve been treated.
More specifically, times of high risk for this feeling of loss – for your client or the opposing party - can occur at any step in the legal process:
• You serve papers or papers are served on your client.
• You attend a court hearing where your client or opponent loses a lot.
• Your client/opponent loses time with a loved one (child, former spouse, etc.).
• Your legal case ends.
• Your client/opponent starts a new relationship, gets married, or has a child.
• Your client/opponent experiences a major setback in his/her own life later on. (I have had several family law cases in which custody battles and support battles occurred when unrelated events went poorly after the divorce for one party.)
For example, many of the murder/suicides in divorce and custody disputes occur within two weeks of a court hearing or other formal decision-making event – either before or after and sometimes on the same day. (Unpublished research by the author. See two examples below.)
Two Examples of Times of High Risk
On January 30, 2013, in the Phoenix area, Arthur Harmon attended a business mediation at the office of the lawyer-mediator. The case was about a business dispute over money related to some subcontracting work Mr. Harmon had done for the company. The mediation was attended by the CEO of the company and his lawyer, while Harmon represented himself.
Apparently, Harmon had a history of lawsuits and an anger problem well-known to many people. He communicated with the lawyer for the company on several occasions, at one point writing him saying: “I am going after you with every fiber in my being and I won’t rest until I see you behind bars for conspiracy to defraud.”
Should the lawyer be concerned after reading that statement before the mediation occurred? It appears to have all of the four warning signs I listed at the start of this article: All-or-nothing thinking or solutions (attorney should be “behind bars”); unmanaged emotions (“I won’t rest…”); extreme behaviors (“I’m going after you with every fiber in my being…”); and a preoccupation with blaming others (it’s all your fault – no effort to share the problem or a solution). While this may sound like a lot of clients or opposing parties, it’s these key warning signs that I believe may predict trouble.
Apparently, the lawyer and CEO went ahead with the mediation. Right after the mediation ended, the 70-year-old Harmon shot and killed the CEO and the CEO’s lawyer, Mark Hummels, 43. Harmon reportedly had a reputation as “angry, a bully, a nut job.” He had a history of filing at least 5 lawsuits since 1994. He swore at and made threats to Mr. Hummels over a period of time. Obviously, his thinking was very distorted, but he did share that thinking in ways that left warning signs.
(Crimesider Staff. Arizona Office Shooting Update, CBS News.com, Feb. 1, 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57567121-504083/arizona-office-shooting-update-phoenix-lawyer-mark-hummels-dies-from-workplace-shooting-injuries/) (Muskal, M. Phoenix lawyer shot after mediation session dies, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 1, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/01/nation/la-na-nn-lawyer-wounded-in-phoenix-office-shooting-dies-20130201)
In February 6, 2011, in Central California, a family court hearing was scheduled to deal with a piece of property related to a divorce. The property was a lakefront home and the husband was so attached to it that he forged documents to keep it and destroyed items of his wife when he had to move out. It was now at issue in the case and she was probably going to get it. He also had a history of domestic violence and remained bitter even years after their separation.
On the day of the hearing, apparently the matter was continued to the afternoon. While the wife and her attorney, Judith Soley, a Certified Family Law Specialist in Fresno, were at a restaurant at lunchtime, the estranged husband showed up and shot and killed them both. Ms. Soley had been practicing for over 30 years.
(Fresno stunned by slayings of prominent lawyer and her client. California Bar Journal, March 2011. http://www.calbarjournal.com/March2011/TopHeadlines/TH5.aspx. Hoggard, C., et al Sandrick, S., Yurong, D. & Handy, S. Bass Lake tragedy, the victims and a bitter divorce. ABC – KFSN-TV Fresno, CA. Feb. 17, 2011. http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=news/local&id=7965277)
Were there warning signs? I believe that the man’s history of uncontrollable anger (unmanaged emotions; extreme behavior; preoccupation with blaming his wife) and his likely sense of loss of the home and public exposure for forging a document created a time of high risk.
Of course, looking backward in retrospect is easier than anticipating times of high risk and observing characteristics of high conflict clients and opposing parties. However, I believe that the four warning signs I have described can be helpful in taking precautions with certain people – especially at certain times when the risks of a feeling of serious loss may be highest.
Bill Eddy is a family lawyer in San Diego, as well as a therapist and family mediator. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author of several books, including: It’s All Your Fault! and BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People. He also co-developed the “HCI PatternViewer,” a computerized method of presenting patterns of high conflict behavior in court and to promote settlement. He has many free articles and other resources for professionals and clients on his website at www.HighConflictInstitute.com.