Family Law and the Difficult Client

As family law practitioners are aware, divorce cases can trigger extreme emotional responses in clients. They are exacerbated when one or both parties has a moderate to severe personality disorder(s). In such cases an otherwise “simple” divorce is turned into a difficult and long affair that may last many years. It would be to your benefit to understand the personality disorder involved, because it will help you to manage your case more effectively. To know the predilections of your difficult clients will help you avoid conflicts.

In almost all cases in which a personality disorder is present in one or both clients, mediation will not be successful. This is because one or both parties is invested in the chronic conflict. It is not unusual for lawyers to be terminated if they do not maintain these conflicts. It takes an inordinate amount of patience and psychological insight to steer these cases to a just and reasonable outcome.

Four of the most common personality disorders you will encounter include the narcissistic person who will almost always consider his/her own needs above those of his/her spouse and children, the histrionic person who will try to cause “scenes” and wants to be the center of attention, the dependent personality disorder who calls you several times each day and is almost incapable of making a firm decision, and the obsessive compulsive person who may spend inordinate amounts of time on small, unimportant points.

With the narcissistic personality disorder you must first control your own frustrations over his or her displays of selfishness. Suggest reality based solutions couched in terms that compliment the client. Rather than getting in a discussion of what your client “deserves,” talk about what is possible to achieve and what a fine person he or she is to compromise.

The histrionic personality requires two things from you, attention and regulation. Indeed an over the top, emotional expression by your client can be handled relatively easy. Present a calm demeanor and ask your client to pause and deliberate. It is not unusual to ask your client to “take a breath” whether in negotiation or at trial.

The dependent personality disorder can be managed by having your assistant talk to the client. He or she needs validation more than legal advice. Your employee can reassure the client that they are on the right track. Decision making is a more difficult task. You will need to set firm deadlines for making a decision. This reduces the client second guessing him or herself.

The obsessive personality disorder cannot see the forest through the trees and will require a big picture problem solving approach from you. You will have to teach him/her how to use you in a cost-effective manner by focusing in on a pragmatic strategy to obtain success.


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