Lawyer and psychotherapist Elizabeth Wittenberg starts her article, “Are Your Clients Making You Crazy? How to Avoid Drama with Maddening Clients,” with this eye-opening quotation:
Statistically, over 9 percent of American adults have a diagnosable personality disorder … .
In other words, it is not your imagination; some of your clients really are mentally ill. In fact, depending on the kind of law you practice, the percentage of your potential client base with a diagnosable personality disorder is probably substantially higher than the average.
A personality disorder, according to Wittenberg, is an “enduring pattern of behavior and subjective experience that affect[s] a person’s thinking, feeling, relationships, and impulsiveness.” And, she says, “Often the affected person sees these patterns as perfectly reasonable and appropriate despite their dramatic, negative impact on her daily life and the lives of those around her.”
People with personality disorders have “limited life scripts” and usually behave in “fixed, unyielding ways” that often force people around them to play implicitly-assigned roles like caretaker or bad guy. In other words, personality disorders have a sort of ripple effect on those around the person with the disorder — clients with personality disorders can make you feel disordered, too.
Common Personality Disorders
Here are a few common personality disorders you might see in your practice:
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist; everything in this post is based on Wittenberg’s article, which you should definitely read.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance, an extreme preoccupation with themselves, and lack of empathy for others. (from NIH.gov; also, see Wikipedia)
Wittenberg says clients with NPD are often cooperative and engaged, at first, but they will start blaming others and lashing out if unexpected problems arise. She says it is very difficult for clients with NPD to take responsibility for anything, or even to admit they played a role in their problems. And they don’t like to be called on it. Clients with NPD may storm out of your office if you point out the role they played in creating their problems.
Narcissism often conceals extremely low self esteem, which narcissistic individuals conceal beneath a self-important shell, reinforced by affirmation and acclaim from people they admire. Wittenberg recommends helping narcissistic clients maintain their self-esteem by treating them with utmost courtesy and respect. Go along with their desire to see you as worthy and high-status. Let them think of you as “the best,” but be careful not to appear to compete with your client. As exceptional as your client wants to think you are, you must come in second to him. Suppress your irritation at your client’s bragging and witticisms; narcissistic clients need your endorsement, and they will probably settle down and stop begging for it if you stroke their ego a little bit.
Where things get especially difficult with a client is in settlement, particularly in criminal matters, where the client may have to acknowledge some responsibility. You must convey to the client that you are on her side, and explain why it is necessary to accept some responsibility while preserving as much self-esteem as possible.
Do not fell into the trap of getting demoralized while working with a narcissistic client, who will never recognize the quality of your work. Satisfy yourself that your work is up to par, and do not get preoccupied if your client does not recognize it.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
Antisocial personality disorder is a mental health condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. This behavior is often criminal. (from NIH.gov; also, see Wikipedia)
According to Wittenberg, “[p]eople with Antisocial Personality Disorder or features of this disorder often come into contact with the legal system. That’s because a key marker of this disorder is ‘failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors … .” That does not necessarily mean criminal behaviors, but people with ASPD have an “overriding motivation to pull something over on others,” and take pleasure in consciously manipulating people. You are as likely to find them at the head of a corporation as in the back of a police cruiser. They are reckless, lack remorse, and are highly impulsive. They either rationalize the harm they do to others, or don’t care.
People with ASPD need to control others and to feel powerful. Like narcissistic clients, they may brag and deny responsibility for their problems, but they will do it in different ways. A client with ASPD is more likely to brag about illegal activities and characterize illegal activity as something everyone else does, too. They also lie a lot.
Put this together, and clients with ASPD can be dangerous to work with. Wittenberg says “[t]he most important thing … when working with antisocial clients is … to maintain safety.” Schedule meetings when other people will be around. Adopt a firm and direct approach so you are seen as strong, not weak. Be rigid when it comes to expectations, billing, and other aspects of the representation. (Antisocial clients are a good reason not to be lenient with payment plans, or not to accept them at all. They will take pleasure in skipping out on your bill.)
In order to forge a relationship with an antisocial client, you have to play to her need to control. Make yourself useful to her by showing her you can help her get what she wants if she works with you. In discussing the legal matter, focus on consequences, not legality or morality.
Antisocial clients will tell you only what they think you need to know, and usually omit details in their narratives. You must elicit detail without challenging your client, which could send him into a rage.
You will probably feel uncomfortable with antisocial clients, and possibly contemptuous of them. You may even be afraid of them.
If you find yourself working with antisocial clients, do not allow yourself to be intimidated or cheated. Be skeptical of everything you hear (a good quality for a lawyer, anyway), be safe when meeting with your client, and protect yourself financially with adequate retainers.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition in which a person has long-term patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions. These inner experiences often result in impulsive actions and chaotic relationships with other people. (from NIH.gov; also, see Wikipedia)
People with BPD are, in a word, unstable. They may even be suicidal, and often engage in other self-destructive behavior. “Clients with [BPD] … can be lots of fun to work with, until suddenly they’re not” says Wittenberg. The trouble is, you may not get any clues that a client has a borderline personality until it emerges later in the representation. In fact, in the beginning, she may be the perfect client — up until something happens to upset her idealized form of your representation.
In legal matters, BPD may introduce intense, inappropriate anger. Clients with BPD may fly off the handle and abruptly terminate relationships — including your representation. Threats of ethics complaints and malpractice lawsuits inevitably follow, when a borderline client terminates your relationship in anger.
Clarity, consistency, and structure will help avoid this result. Regular status calls or emails are especially important to borderline clients, and you should be prompt in returning communications, even if it’s just to acknowledge that you will follow up.
Representing a borderline client can be a roller coaster ride. Resist the ups and downs by staying calm and level. Borderline clients challenge you to reject them. If you stay the course, you will be able to do the work you were hired to do.
You Cannot Avoid Clients with Personality Disorders
Dealing with clients with personality disorders sounds like a lot of trouble, and you may be tempted to resolve never to represent such clients. But, discrimination laws aside, personality disorders may not be clear at the outset of the representation, for one thing. For another, if a tenth (or more) of your potential client base has a personality disorder, chances are good you will end up dealing with a disordered client sooner rather than later, anyway.
If you understand your clients’ personality disorders just well enough to work with their needs, you can still be an effective advocate while making your clients happy.
This was originally published on March 6, 2013. It was revised and republished on February 19, 2014.
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