© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
On March 7th, I spoke to about 140 family law professionals in Austin Texas, at the beautiful historic Green Pastures restaurant. It was a luncheon meeting, but I tried to squeeze in about three hours of information about handling high conflict clients in divorce cases. One of the realities we discussed was that high conflict parties will often end up in court needing the judge to make their decisions. However, I still encourage family lawyers to try hard to settle these cases between attorneys, in mediation or in collaborative divorce. Even though some may end up in court, many high conflict clients can settle their cases reasonably with good professional management. Court often makes their behavior much worse in the long run, so it’s worth it to try out-of-court settlements while being prepared for court. Good management includes really connecting with clients, even high conflict clients. I emphasized the “right brain” need for connecting with Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.®). Of course, I had my extra (plastic) brain with me to help show where the corpus callosum is, which is damaged in many children who have been abused and in many people with personality disorders. On the other hand, many people with personality disorders appear to lack development of problem-solving skills when they are upset, because they grew up “entitled” – meaning they got whatever they wanted without many limitations and regardless of their own behavior.
Because of this reduced ability to solve problems while upset, high conflict people (HCPs) need more E.A.R.®, before they can solve problems. Many family law attorneys are tempted to just tell the client what the law is or to get angry with high conflict clients when they are upset. This can lead to a real breakdown in the attorney-client relationship or non-payment of fees or even lawsuits. It’s always better to connect first, then talk about the law and solutions. Ironically, if the lawyer can focus on a good working relationship, instead of try to force a particular outcome to the case, the actual outcome is better.
For these reasons, I emphasized that the most successful cases occur when the lawyer and client are prepared to check out rumors and personal criticisms with each other first, whether they come from the opposing client or opposing lawyer. It’s so easy for attorneys and clients in high conflict cases to become divided, even if they are both reasonable and it’s the other side that’s high conflict.
This also means having the client decide or agree with each step of the case, and the lawyer not getting hooked into feeling responsible for “fixing” all of the client’s problems. Instead, the lawyer is only responsible for his or her standard of care, which means advising the client, but not being responsible for the client’s outcome. High conflict clients often sabotage the professionals trying to help them, so this approach shifts more of the burden to the client which actually feels empowering to the client and less stressful for the professional. There’s fewer power struggles between professional and client this way.
This also means that the attorney can and should say “no” to certain requests of the client. Many high conflict cases are escalated or calmed down, depending on how the attorney deals with the high conflict party. I think the lawyers at this luncheon preferred to calm down both sides in the case and find reasonable settlements when possible, and to inform the court of the realities when necessary. I briefly explained HCI PatternViewer, as one way to inform the court of high conflict behavior over time in a simple presentation on a computer screen. This approach gives the court a much larger picture of behavior than arguing about one or two vague incidents out of context.
It was a lot to cover in a couple hours, and several of them said more lawyers need to hear this information. The more professionals that understand how to work with high conflict clients, the easier it will be for everyone!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.