Washington Lawyer - May 2017 - 24

Yet Liotta says he's not deterred by difficult clients.
He has two deal breakers: "Don't lie to me and don't
cheat me." Failing that, he says, "I'm old school. I see
my cases to the end."
Intense feelings are to be expected during a divorce
or custody trial, but sometimes the intensity is more
than just situational. Liotta suspects that mental
illness may be the catalyst for some of the divorces
he sees in his practice.
"In a lot of these cases, one party or the other really
seems to have some sort of mental health issue.
It doesn't always rise to the level of diagnosable
illness, like borderline personality disorder. But often
clients have real mental health [problems] they are
either in treatment for, or should be," he says.
Those issues can play out in court with clients
who continually reject their advocate's legal
counsel, fail to respond to mediation, punish others
with endless litigation, issue threats, appeal cases
pro se, or act out irrationally in the courtroom.
Lawyers in most practice areas, especially family
law and employment law, have probably encountered a client, witness, or opposing party with a
suspected personality disorder. It should not be
assumed that everyone who suffers from mental
illness would be a difficult client. Psychologists who
study personality disorders, however, have found
that some disordered people get secondary gain
from legal disputes.
Regina DeMeo, a family law attorney in Bethesda,
Maryland, had one such case. "I've been doing this
for 18 years. Only 5 percent of my cases ever go to
trial." That's because most people are reasonable,

says DeMeo. "They do the cost-benefit analysis"
and arrive at some sort of compromise.
But not the ex-wife of one of her clients, who
DeMeo says has cost her client over $120,000 in
court costs over two years defending himself.
"She does not stop."
Even when she loses? "Especially when she loses,"
says DeMeo, rattling off a litany of emergency
filings, requests for protection from abuse orders,
motions to compel or contempt motions, custody
evaluations demanded (and then rejected), exceptions, and motions to reconsider.
"We never get a break. We were required to try
mediation. It went nowhere. It was like Chinese
water torture," DeMeo says.

'YOUR SUFFERING
EXCITES THEM'
What motivates someone to litigate, even to
the point of self-destructiveness? Dr. George
Simon, a psychologist and bestselling author
of In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing
With Manipulative People, has spent over 30 years
studying personality disorders. He says the appeal
of the court system to what he terms as narcissistic
aggressive personalities is twofold.
"[It's the] living hell nature of the ordeal itself to
punish, and the hope, and often success through
manipulation and impression management, of
securing an ally in the law for one's power play.
Narcissists want you to know that no one best
them, outdoes them, diminishes, or embarrasses
them," Simon says. "The aggressive personalities

HOW HIGH-CONFLICT PERSONALITIES AND THE COURT PROCESS ALIGN
According to experts, the adversarial nature of the legal system is very attractive to many people with
mental health problems, especially those with personality disorders. The following chart shows why:
CHARACTERISTICS OF HCPS

CHARACTERISTICS OF COURT PROCESSES

Lifetime preoccupation: blaming others

Purpose is deciding who is to blame, who is "guilty"

Avoids taking responsibility

The court will hold someone else responsible

All-or-nothing thinking

Guilty or not guilty are usually the only choices

Always seeking attention and sympathy

One can be the center of attention and sympathy

Aggressively seeks allies in their cause

Can bring numerous advocates to court

Speaks in dramatic, emotional extremes

Can argue or testify in dramatic, emotional extremes

Focuses intensely on others' past behavior

Can hear or give testimony on past behavior of others

Punishes those guilty of "hurting" them

Court is the place to impose maximum punishment

Tries to get others to solve their problems

Get the court to solve one's problems

It's okay to lie if you feel desperate

Lying (perjury) is rarely acknowledged or punished

Source: High-Conflict People in Legal Disputes, by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

24 WASHINGTON LAWYER

*

MAY 2017

*

"You can represent a difficult
client, but you have to have the
bandwidth to do it. . . . These
people require special handling.
If you can't do that, don't take
them on."
DAN MILLS
D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service

just want you to know that in a fight, you're going
to get beaten. And the sadistic ones really enjoy
your suffering, so they'll be turning the screws
every chance they get just to see you grovel -
it excites them."
Simon advises that the way to deal with such
people is to first recognize that they exist, that
some people do not "respect the norms of fair play."
It's not that they lack insight that their behavior is
wrong, upsetting, or unethical - they just don't
care, he says.
Appealing to their better nature or offering insight
into how their behavior hurts others is a losing
strategy. Simon advises exercising firm boundaries,
but to expect pushback.
"When the aggressive personality is denied what
they want or loses their quest for dominance, all the
'rules of fair play' will be ignored," says Simon. "The
quest is for vindication, power, dominance, control,
and securing something at the other's expense."
So how can an attorney tell if he or she is dealing
with a malignant personality compared to a runof-the-mill difficult client? Attorney, therapist, and
mediator Bill Eddy has made a career for himself
helping people with exactly this dilemma. Eddy
runs the High Conflict Institute and has written
numerous books on dealing with what he calls
"high-conflict people."
Eddy says people with personality disorders
stand out in three ways. First, "they really lack
self-awareness of their behavior and its impact
on others." Second, says Eddy, disordered people
don't change their behavior no matter how
self-defeating, even when it's in their own best
interest to do so. Third, they are obsessed with
blaming others.
"[High-conflict people] are really stuck in a narrow
range of dysfunctional behavior that they repeat
and repeat. And you can't change them for the
better. Just forget about it!" he says.
The biggest giveaway that you're dealing with a
personality disorder, says Eddy, is that they "blame


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