Hiring a Lawyer Who Understands High Conflict

©2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Excerpt from Chapter 7: Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder)  

Selecting the right attorney may be your single biggest decision. Interview at least three attorneys before choosing the one you want to retain as your advocate through what may be the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. Ideally, look for an attorney who:

  • Has experience in your court: Your attorney should know the judges and what to expect in their courtrooms. There is some variation among counties, so find a local attorney who knows the local rules and is respected by your judge.

  • Is easy to communicate with: Your attorney should be open to your input and concerns, and work closely with you in handling surprises and legal maneuvers.

  • Understands difficult personalities in family-court cases: While you may not find an attorney with specific knowledge of BP and NP traits, some are better than others at handling common manipulations and false statements.

Few attorneys recognize and understand PDs. They simply view blamers as jerks, liars, or incredibly frustrating opponents. If you find an attorney who is experienced in your court, easy to communicate with, and open minded; returns your phone calls; and is willing to share decision making with you, you may be able to educate him on the personality issues. Keep in mind that most family law attorneys are reluctant to take potentially high-conflict cases, because blamers drain their energy, too.

Using referral sources, such as the following ones, is more effective than making cold calls from the phone book. After getting names, be sure to interview the lawyer yourself.

  • Mental health professionals: Contact a mental health professional who knows about PDs and works on family-law cases. Psychologists, clinical social workers, and family counselors regularly testify in court or do assessments for the court.

  • Mental health organizations (such as a psychiatric hospital or counseling clinic): Explain your situation to someone who has dealt with people with BP or NP traits, and then ask if the person has referrals to three attorneys.

  • Family and friends: Someone you know may have had a good experience with an attorney in a difficult case. Keep in mind that the case may have been quite different from yours.

  • Referral service: Most county bar associations have referral services that usually give out three names. Then you can interview all three and make a choice.

  • Court observation: If you’ve got the time, go to the court where your case will be heard and observe the attorneys. See the way they interact with each other and argue their cases. If you like one, go up afterward and ask for a business card.

Questions to Ask                                           

There’s a wide range of attorneys; you’ll want to find one who fits you like a partner, accompanying you through the ups and downs of what will likely be an unpleasant journey. Here are some critical questions to ask:

  • How do you usually communicate with clients? Look for answers that include a usual response time for returning phone calls of at least twenty-four to forty-eight hours, depending on the urgency of the issue. You don’t want an attorney who will always pass you off to an assistant, associate, or secretary. Sometimes staff will be able to help you, which saves you money. Just make sure you have access to your lawyer when you need it.

  • Ask how easy it is to schedule an appointment with the attorney when you want to discuss your case. When you speak with a prospective attorney, notice whether she is distracted by other matters (phone calls, papers to review, and so on). Does she seem attentive? Is the attorney a good listener, or does he interrupt or take over the conversation before you explain your concerns?

  • Do you prefer to negotiate or go to court? About how many cases have you settled this year? About how many cases have you taken to court for hearings or trials? While negotiations may work, many attorneys quickly become frustrated with blamers’ rigid thinking, mood swings, arrogance, and disrespect. These attorneys may try to avoid this mess by prematurely ending negotiations. That’s not what you want. You want a lawyer who won’t take these traits personally and will exhaust all settlement options before going to court. But a credible threat of going to court sometimes helps settle a case, so be sure to hire a lawyer who is equally competent in and out of court. When you use the same attorney for court whom you used in negotiations, that person will be familiar with you and with the other side’s manipulations, allegations, and rigid thinking. Patterns of behavior that occurred in negotiations (which will probably escalate in court) may help your attorney plan a winning strategy.

  • Have you ever handled a case like mine before? Ideally, the answer is yes. Some attorneys may have had lots of experience with your type of case, and others will be relatively new. Experience matters a lot in law, because there are so many details, rules, and tools you’ll use. It’s helpful if the attorney is familiar with your judge and how your judge handles cases like yours.

  • What steps would you take in handling a case like mine? There is no right answer to this question. Mostly, you want to see if the attorney’s steps make sense to you and if she explains things to your satisfaction. This will give you an idea of whether the attorney is familiar with the common problems of persuasive blamers or if he’s merely guessing. You’ll also get an idea of whether you feel comfortable with this attorney’s approach. Make sure this person is open to your information and suggestions.

  • Do you believe that most abuse allegations are true or false? Does the lawyer jump to conclusions about your case? Is she honest with you about her experience, availability, and the strengths and weaknesses of your case? Beware of attorneys who readily accept any abuse allegations without question: they will turn against you in the middle of the case, when someone else makes a damaging statement against you, however false. Attorneys who are easily emotionally persuaded might suddenly change their minds rather than weigh all the evidence.

You want an attorney who doesn’t presume that your abuse concerns are always true or always false. Many reasonable parents make the mistake of seeking a lawyer who is identified with one or the other extreme. Instead, you want a skeptical lawyer who:

      • Is familiar with the whole range of possibilities

      • Is open minded

      • Is objective

      • Asks clients lots of questions

      • Seeks corroborating evidence

      • Is honest with you if he thinks you’re mistaken or misperceiving events

Bill Eddy headshot

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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