Teaching Law Students to Prepare for High Conflict Clients

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

On Nov. 3rd, I gave a morning seminar to law students at California Western School of Law in San Diego on Negotiation and Mediation with High Conflict People (HCPs). Even though they didn’t have cases yet, they were very sharp in recognizing high conflict traits in family, friends and work settings. One of the hardest aspects to accept about HCPs is that they do not reflect on their own behavior and therefore become preoccupied with blaming others. So the students learned that they should avoid trying to convince their future clients to have insights about themselves. That is just a frustrating waste of time, and unnecessary for resolving disputes, yet many legal professionals spent years before they learned about this.

Hopefully, I saved them from blaming themselves or their clients when they do not change. Instead, we focused on four key factors that help HCPs reach settlement: 

  1. Connecting by giving them Empathy, Attention and Respect;

  2. Providing lots of structure, including teaching them how to make proposals and how to communicate using BIFF responses (see BIFF book);

  3. Reality-testing by maintaining a healthy skepticism, while avoiding fighting with clients over their perceptions (“You might be right! I’ll never know. I wasn’t’ there.”); and

  4. Educating clients about consequences.

I also told them that if they are dating, they should wait at least a year before making a major commitment, because high-conflict behaviors (such as significant lying, domestic violence, financial problems, lack of empathy and remorse, extreme mood swings) do not always come to the surface during the first 6 to 9, sometimes 12 months. Beyond that it is much rarer to suddenly discover that your partner has a high-conflict personality. However, HCPs often have a “sugar-coated” personality at the beginning, so it is particularly helpful to be patient and open-minded, rather than swept off your feet.

Overall, they seem much more prepared for managing high-conflict clients (and opposing parties and opposing counsel) now, and they have my book High Conflict People in Legal Disputes which should help them in their first few years of practice. I wish them well!

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.

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