Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

December 2012Volume 100Number 12Page 636

December 2012 Illinois Bar Journal Cover Image

Attorney and Client

Handling Confrontational Clients

Maria Kantzavelos

If you think you're encountering more angry clients these days - and that the anger has a sharper edge - you're not alone. But there are ways to manage your relationship with confrontational clients to help you better protect yourself and their interests.

He's been called a bloodsucker. His law office was once stalked by a professional kick-boxer client. And he's had the police called on him by another client enraged because he hadn't received his settlement check, though the check hadn't yet cleared the bank.

In practice for nearly two decades, Chicago-based trial lawyer Harold L. Wallin, who handles DUI and related traffic matters as well as personal injury cases, has seen his share of so-called difficult clients over the years - clients who come with issues beyond the legal sort.

But recently, Wallin said, he notices a higher frequency of clients who seem emotionally distressed to varying degrees - those with extreme mood swings that might indicate bipolar disorder, those displaying manipulative and demanding behavior often associated with narcissistic personality disorder, or those who are just angry at their legal situation and turn that anger against the lawyer.

"I've always seemed to have a few problem clients at any given time," Wallin said. "But these types of people now take up a substantially greater percentage of my practice. A greater percentage of clients are troubled.…people who get very angry, or very emotional, or have some sort of psychodrama and they're pulling me into it."

Wallin's observations seem to be in synch with the findings of major research showing a growing prevalence today of mental illness and substance abuse in the U.S.

And according to California attorney, mediator, and certified family law specialist Bill Eddy, who is also a licensed social worker, former therapist, and co-founder of the San Diego-based High Conflict Institute (, that growth includes a rise in personality disorders.

"Lawyers see more personality disorders than the average population because people come to them in a crisis and they expect to have a close relationship with their lawyer," Eddy said. "But it's not obvious that there's a mental health issue because personality disorders aren't obvious. So it's tempting to treat them as a normal person, and get angry with them and try to use logic and insight. And that's the thing to avoid."

'Everyone has a limit'

Consider some of the examples of the types of "problem clients" Wallin and other lawyers have seen.

Like the client who retained him to help clear up a long-standing driver's license issue. "Each time I'd try to walk him through the process of what had to be done, and the various steps and paperwork and alcohol abuse treatment and documents, he'd get very upset at times," Wallin said. Phone calls from the client that lasted up to 45 minutes seemed constant, Wallin said, with conversations featuring the client mainly venting his complaints about the law.

Arriving in his office one morning, Wallin noticed the client had called five times in a row within minutes, before leaving a scathing message that started out with the normal, "'When you get a chance, please give me a call,'" he said. "He paused, and then turned into a rant against me about how I was working against him and sabotaging him and so forth."

"It was very troubling," Wallin said. "I called him back. He wouldn't let me say a word. He interrupts every syllable. He couldn't hold his anger back. He couldn't control his emotions."

After some back-and-forth, with the attorney explaining in a letter the realities of the client's legal problem and what he was really trying to do to help him resolve it, "as opposed to whatever he was imagining," Wallin was compelled to withdraw from the case. He did withdraw, he said, and the client apologized for his behavior, saying he had realized that the attorney, all along, was the only one on his side and it was everyone else against him.

"I just couldn't take any more abuse," he said. "I just did not have any confidence, after three times of coming close to the edge of withdrawing with him, that we wouldn't be repeating this whole cycle one more time. That was the end of it for me.

"I feel bad because here's someone who needs legal help. He needs to get his license back; it's something that went on over 15 years ago. But you've got to have a lot of patience," Wallin said. "And I'm a laid back person. Other attorneys have referred me clients saying, 'He's a problem person and I can't deal with it, but you seem to be able to handle these clients.'…Everyone has a limit."

Wallin is not alone in his encounters in a service profession that has sole practitioners and small firm lawyers working with the public on a regular basis.

As a general practitioner with an emphasis in the areas of workers' compensation, family law, real estate, and employment law, Rochelle-based attorney James G. Ahlberg has had dealings with the sort of client he describes as "greatly disturbed but gentle" as well as the "violently disturbed" or threatening client - and all sorts of personalities in between.

But Ahlberg said it is still uncomfortable for him today to talk about one disturbing incident, even though it happened 27 years ago and he's never had a similar experience with a client since then in his 34 years in private practice.

That was the time a woman came to his law office with a host of complaints against "everything from schools to her medical doctor to social workers to you name it," Ahlberg said. Still, he said, "It was incumbent on me to investigate the situation." He told the woman he would look into her allegations and contact her in a few days to let her know if he could help her and, if so, what sort of legal assistance he could provide.

Arriving home from lunch an hour later, Ahlberg found his wife sobbing in the kitchen hugging the couple's then preschool-age twin girls. "I figured somebody had died," he said.

Rather, the prospective client, after she had left Ahlberg's office, called the attorney's home. "She said if I didn't take her case it would be farewell to the wife and kids," Ahlberg said. "There was no doubt in what she conveyed. It was implied that she would kill, which of course made me decide really quickly that this is not someone I'll represent. You can't allow your life to be blackmailed."

High conflict personalities

What's a lawyer to do when troubling behaviors and personalities seem to undermine the effort to help the client understand the legal issues and process and in getting the client to cooperate in putting on a strong case?

While the term "high conflict personality" is not a mental health diagnosis - as is narcissistic personality disorder, for example - Eddy suggests that many high-conflict personalities fit the criteria of Cluster B Personality Disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. For lawyers, Eddy said, "The key is: Don't worry about trying to diagnose what mental health problem [a client] may have. People who are difficult may have any of various mental health problems, including temporary situations that aren't even diagnosable."

For such people, "high conflict behavior is part of who they are. It's part of how they routinely think, manage feelings and behave," Eddy said. "What's important in thinking about high-conflict personalities is that you realize it isn't just a situation that's happened, and in all other ways the person is going to act like everybody else. It's actually a pattern. So once you see some warning signs, you can predict future problems."

Here are Eddy's descriptions of some of the main patterns of behavior in people who can become high conflict.

All-or-nothing thinking, rather than taking time to analyze the situation, hear different points of view and consider several possible solutions. "They see a problem as solved by, 'We just eliminate the other person.' They don't have gray areas," Eddy said.

Unmanaged emotions, often catching others by surprise with intense fear, anger, yelling, or show of disrespect. While they often seem unable to control their own emotions, some high conflict people don't lose control of their emotions, but use emotional manipulation to hurt others.

Extreme behaviors, which may include shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, or trying to have obsessive contact and keeping track of your every move - or refusing to have any contact at all, even though you may be depending on them to respond.

A preoccupation with blaming others - usually someone close to them or someone in a position of authority. "They can talk for more than half an hour to you about how bad the other person was without ever saying something like, 'I should've tried this or I should've never done that,' " Eddy said.

Gail Petrich, an attorney and psychologist with offices in Chicago and its western suburbs who spoke on managing clients with mental health problems during a session of the 2012 ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference, offered some insight into how some lawyers can become negative advocates whom high-conflict clients use to help attack their targets.

"Lawyers go wrong when they become negative advocates," Petrich said. "We genuinely want to help them. We believe their cognitive distortions. We're misled, especially by the borderline and the narcissist, because they're charming, they're really hurt, they have a lot of anger and they can be pretty bright. They try to get us to join in the advocacy against all their enemies."

But by doing so, Petrich said, "We, unfortunately, protect them from the natural consequences of their own behaviors. We add fuel to the fire by promoting the fight, unfortunately."

While the court system sees people who may have all sorts of mental health issues, it is the so-called high conflict personalities that tend to thrive there, Petrich said. "We find them in your office a lot, and these folks like to file ARDC complaints," she said during the presentation.

In dealing with high-conflict clients, Petrich said, it's important to remember that they can be psychologically unable to reflect on their own behaviors and to grasp the consequences of their actions. That's why calling them out on their behavior, she said, tends to "fuel the fire."

"The hard part about this is, they don't have any insight into their own behaviors.…What we have to remember about these folks is, the issue is not the issue; the personality is the issue," Petrich said.

"This is why it's so important to identify these folks and say, 'Ok, I have to go into a different mode when I'm trying to relate to them, because it's just not going to work to do business as usual," Petrich said. "A lot of times, we tend to focus on their emotions. Lawyers want to cut it off right away and they want to get all bossy and say, 'You can't go on like that,' or, 'That's being disrespectful.' You can't do that."

Lend them your EAR

Whether you find yourself representing a client with a high-conflict personality and/or a full-blown personality disorder, a distressed client or one who is just upset, Eddy of the High Conflict Institute recommends using the same approach to calming down and dealing with difficult clients.

It's a simple technique, he said, albeit one that may be opposite of what you feel like doing when a client is upset and verbally attacking you.

Before even attempting to get into the law and using logic, Eddy said, administer some "EAR statements," which stands for empathy, attention, and respect.

Statements like:

"Wow, I can hear how upset you are (Empathy);"

"Tell me what's going on (Attention);" and

"I share your concerns about this problem and respect your efforts to solve it (Respect)."

"The tendency is to react to these folks either by avoiding them or angrily confronting them. Both of those backfire and make things worse, generally," Eddy said.

Instead, Eddy said, giving the upset client some EAR can be effective in calming them down so you can proceed with addressing the legal problem at hand.

"First you've got to connect with these folks. Then you can get into the [legal] issues," Eddy said. "Resist [those defensive urges], and try to really connect with them person to person."

You can offer up statements that show empathy, Eddy said, without actually using the word. Statements like: "I can see how important this is to you;" "I understand this can be frustrating;" "I know this process can be confusing;" "I'm sorry to see that you're in this situation;" and "I'd like to help you if I can."

The theory, according to Eddy, is that since many high-conflict people often feel ignored or disrespected, they tend to get into conflicts as a way of getting attention from those around them. A show of respect can help in calming down an upset client, especially high-conflict personalities, who are often desperate to be respected, Eddy said, with statements like: "I can see that you are a hard worker;" "You have important skills that we need here;" or "I respect how good a record keeper you are, or how committed you are to raising your child so well."

To administer statements of respect in your attempts to calm down the high-conflict client, Eddy advises lawyers to find something they can respect about the person without lying, noting that upset people in general are often hypersensitive to lying.

"If you don't feel empathy for the person and you don't respect the person, just tell them you'll really listen, you really want to understand the case, and to tell you more - and they will."

It's not about you

In sharing some of his tips for dealing with high-conflict clients, Eddy emphasized that the first two are things he advises not to do: Don't take it personally, and don't try to give them insight about their own behavior.

"What happens is clients will attack you and you feel like you have to prove something to them, or you have to set them straight, that you have to counteract them or defend yourself," Eddy said. "Remember, it's not about you - it's about their mental health problems."

In addition to EAR, Eddy and Petrich suggest using some of the following tools to manage relationships with high-conflict clients.

Analyze alternatives together with the client in a way that helps the client focus on options for solving a problem. "The lawyer should approach this matter-of-factly, rather than emotionally and dictatorially," Eddy said. "Ask them: 'What do you propose around certain issues?' Especially when they're upset and you see some solutions, but you want to get them engaged. It's an especially good question to ask when they're complaining. It gets them focused on alternatives."

Structure the relationship around tasks rather than reacting to emotions. "Sometimes I'll have them make a list or write a letter, or something that helps them feel like they're doing something constructive, but it's organizing their thoughts a little better," Petrich said. "They don't have that capacity to calm themselves down, so we have to do it for them."

Focus on "reality testing" so that you don't necessarily believe everything you are told. However, Eddy advises, don't assume the person is lying, because they may honestly believe inaccurate information.

Educate about consequences and the potential risks ahead. "This is very helpful because high-conflict people aren't thinking about the future, they're just thinking about the moment, and that [future consequences] is something lawyers know about," Eddy said. "Educating about consequences is talking about the future and that's helpful. But trying to lead them to insight about their past behavior is pretty much a dead end. Don't waste time there. Don't try and have them have insight into how he got into that situation. … Say, just real simply, 'Here's the consequence.' "

Set limits and maintain boundaries. "This is, perhaps, the most important part," Eddy said. "High-conflict people have a hard time stopping themselves. You have to think about setting limits on these folks."

For example, Eddy said, "A lawyer would say to a client, 'I'm not willing to discuss that issue today, I'm only willing to discuss such-and-such issue.' Or, 'Our time is up.' If they're just telling their story over and over again, listening forever doesn't give them that sense of relief as it does for the average person. It's okay to interrupt the story with an EAR statement and then, 'How I can help you is to focus on this next task.' You're setting limits on your conversations with them, and also on various behaviors."

Respond to misinformation, whether it's coming from high-conflict clients or opposing parties and their lawyers. But do so without anger. Eddy advises using a method he calls BIFF, which stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. "These are short paragraphs for responding to hostile or distorted information," Eddy said. "It's a way to keep from escalating the conversation, especially with emails."

Dangerous clients

Dealing with the often unmanaged emotions of clients can be a challenge in and of itself for lawyers. Sometimes, however, there is also the underlying risk of being confronted with a client who could become outright dangerous.

Indeed, there have been the headline-grabbing stories of reportedly disgruntled clients lashing out at lawyers or judges with violent and murderous acts that have shaken the legal community here.

In Petrich's own practice, she said, she is seeing a growing number of clients who come to her for therapy and divorce coaching while they are in litigation.

The attorney/psychologist pointed out research suggesting that it is generally the people with personality disorders of the kind associated with high-conflict personalities who are more likely to resort to violence. "When we have violence happening, it's more likely to be a personality disorder than it is to be what we generally think of as 'crazy' people," Petrich said.

That's all the more reason to take extra steps to calm down high-conflict personalities with techniques like offering EAR statements in response to an outburst, rather than becoming confrontational and responding with one's own anger and critical insight into a client's otherwise contentious behavior, Petrich said.

But Petrich stressed that just because certain personality disorders, like narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, may be a higher predictor of violence than, perhaps, clinical psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, lawyers shouldn't be quick to conclude that the high-conflict person in front of them is going to become dangerously violent.

Eddy agrees. "A vast majority of high conflict people won't ever be violent," he said.

While violence risk prediction is an inexact science, Petrich said, a history of past violence can be predictive of future violence. Even so, she said, "Just because he beats his wife doesn't mean he's going to come into my office and beat me."

In dealing with high-conflict clients, Eddy said, "If you get a sense of a history of violence or loss of control, and they have a significant substance abuse problem, and a couple of other issues [such as], if they own a lot of weapons and that may be a preoccupation, those are all warning signs of someone to be cautious with."

In dealing with such clients, Eddy said, lawyers are well advised to limit their contact to meetings only when others are around, rather than meetings after staff has left.

If a client - or the client's opposing party - makes dangerous threats, Eddy said, attorneys may want to consider transferring that client or case.

"If they have violent fantasies you don't want them to stay focused on you," Eddy said.

Considering the psychology of transference, Eddy said, "The new lawyer generally won't get as much intensity from the client, and the lawyer who was getting the intensity will be able to avoid the client and, in time, that should reduce. The fixation the client or opposing party had on you tends to diminish over time."

Still, when transferring a threatening client, Eddy said, "Do it gently rather than angrily," with a statement like: "Our styles are different, and that's why we need to go our separate ways."

"With these folks, you get angry with them and they sue you or hit you or don't pay you," Eddy said. "They get revenge, and you don't want to inspire people to get revenge."

'We need to help them'

Dealing with difficult clients can take a psychological toll on attorneys. As a trial lawyer with a heavy practice, Chicago attorney Wallin said, "You always have to compartmentalize. But that can be hard to do when you're dealing with someone like that."

"When you get so upset over one client who can take over your day, your thought process, your week…they kind of infect your mind. They affect you with that anger or hate."

Collaborating with licensed mental health professionals on cases involving high-conflict clients could also be helpful to lawyers. As a divorce coach and litigation coach, Petrich said she helps run interface between lawyers and their clients as a means of keeping their relationship strong by "interpreting to the lawyer what the client meant and by interpreting to the client what the lawyer meant. And, I can also help in the decision-making, in weighing the legal issues against the emotional issues because they do have equal importance to the client in a way that they don't to the attorney."

Although some of the characteristics generally associated with high-conflict personalities and people with related mental health issues can be uniquely difficult to deal with, as lawyers, Eddy said: "We need to help them; we need to not be biased against them."

"They do get into legal problems just like everybody else. It doesn't mean they don't have real problems, and it doesn't mean they're always exaggerating. They may be telling the truth about a legal issue," Eddy said. "In many ways, we need to think of them as similar to alcoholics and addicts, who can be very high-functioning people who have a problem and yet defeat themselves without realizing the part they play in their problem."

Petrich put it this way: "These folks do find themselves in court cases a lot, so they deserve representation just like everyone else," she said. "We have to serve them - they're human beings. We can't just write them off and say, 'You're a pain, I'm done with you.'"

Maria Kantzavelos <> is a Chicago-based freelance writer focusing on legal topics.

Find out more and earn CLE credit

Gail Petrich's 2012 Solo and Small Firm presentation - Reducing Risks and Managing Mayhem: Recognizing and Managing Clients with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems - is online now! Follow the link at

Calm high-conflict clients with EAR statements

Getting angry or defensive with high-conflict clients only makes things worse, says lawyer-mediator Bill Eddy. Instead, use EAR (empathy, attention, and respect) statements to disarm them:

"Wow, I can hear how upset you are (Empathy);"

"Tell me what's going on (Attention);" and

"I share your concerns about this problem and respect your efforts to solve it (Respect)."


Login to read and post comments