Washington Lawyer - May 2017 - 25

others for all of their own problems. Since they
don't reflect on their own behavior, they have
incredible energy for scrutinizing everyone else's
behavior." Eddy explains that blame-shifting is a
kind of self-soothing behavior for them.
"[They] really want to feel better, and since they can't
look at themselves, they are always trying
to get other people to change or to destroy them or
to otherwise eliminate them from their lives. Then
they think they'll feel better. This just makes things
worse, so they often get in more trouble.
But they're stuck in this pattern of blame and denial."
Litigation is attractive to high-conflict people
precisely because the adversarial nature of the
courtroom aligns with their desire to blame and
punish, says Eddy. (See sidebar.)

STICK IT OUT OR
WALK AWAY?
When dealing with high-conflict people, sometimes prevention is the best medicine.
"It's worthwhile at the onset for lawyers to ask
themselves if it makes sense to take on a client,"
says Hope C. Todd, assistant director for legal ethics
at the D.C. Bar. "Pay attention at the initial meeting
and look for red flags. Did they fire three other
lawyers before you?"
A more seasoned practitioner may be able to spot
high-conflict clients right away, but for the new
attorney, experience is the best teacher. "The longer
you practice, the better you get at client intakes.
A skillful and detailed
intake process can
reveal a lot," says Dan
METHOD
Mills, assistant director
of the D.C. Bar Practice
onnect
Management Advisory
Service.

CARS

EAR STATEMENT

C

with

Empathy

n
n
Respect
n
A

Attention

nalyze options

Respond to

hostility or
misinformation

Set limits

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

Mills advises attorneys
to ask clients to tell their
stories more than once
and to listen for inconsistencies. "Who have
they told their story to
before? Other lawyers?
Psychiatrists? What are
their expectations for
litigation? Difficult
clients will usually
express needs for
unattainable results. Ask
them if they've litigated
before. Have they been
sued? Experienced
mediation or
arbitration?"

"You can represent a difficult client," says Mills, "but
you have to have the bandwidth to do it." Highconflict clients require a lot of handholding, and
managing expectations is essential. "Document
everything and establish ways of communicating.
A lot of these people, they want to own their
lawyers and will expect 24/7 responsiveness.
They're eager to pay, and sometimes lawyers let
their guards down in those situations."
These are the sorts of clients who will "send long,
detailed correspondence - like diaries - and
expect quick and detailed responses," Mills says.
His advice? Let the client know you can't always
respond, but when you do, they will be charged
for your time.
"Sometimes all they really want is just confirmation
you received it. The very worst thing you can do is
ignore them - they'll go off," he says.
Where is the point at which the client may be
putting you in ethical hot water? Under the D.C.
Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers must pursue
the lawful objectives of their clients, but, according
to Todd, they are not "bound to press for every
advantage." Use your professional judgment,
she advises.
"Rules 3.1 and 4.4(a) especially provide some limitations on attorney conduct, including prohibiting
frivolous actions or means that have no substantial
purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden
a third person," Todd says.
If things become untenable, exercise caution
when preparing a motion to withdraw. Rule 1.16(b)
(4) provides that a lawyer may withdraw if obdurate
or vexatious conduct on the part of the client has
rendered the representation unreasonably difficult.
"Lawyers must ensure that they withdraw from their
cases ethically, even if a client is so difficult that the
lawyer can no longer work for him or her," says
Todd. "Your duty of confidentiality prevents you
from disparaging your client to the tribunal; citing
'irreconcilable differences' should be sufficient."
But in the big picture? Forewarned is forearmed.
"These people require special handling," says Mills.
"If you can't do that, don't take them on."

EMPATHY CAN
GO A LONG WAY

and help them. "You
don't have to defend
yourself. Instead, show
your awareness of what
it's like for your client."
Next, it's important to
focus the person on
his or her choices and
thinking about them.
"So, rather than talking
about their past
behavior and trying
to change it, focus
forward. Say something
like: 'I respect your
feedback about how
your case is going. Let's
look at your choices at
this stage,'" Eddy says.

BIFF

RESPONSE

Be
Brief

n
n
n
n

Informative
Friendly
Firm

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

When the client becomes hostile,
Eddy suggests the BIFF Response: "Be brief, informative, friendly, and firm. This works especially well
with emails. You don't have to be defensive. Just
provide straight information and keep it brief."
"People with personality disorders distort a lot
of information by seeing things in all-or-nothing
terms, jumping to conclusions, taking things
personally that aren't, exaggerating or minimizing
things, etc.," he says.
As for setting limits, Eddy says "it seems to
work best to talk about external reasons for a
desired behavior, rather than to make it personal:
'Unfortunately, the law does not allow us to take
that approach.' Or: 'Our firm requires that we get
the retainer in advance.'"
"That way they are less likely to take it personally and
become extremely defensive. You want them to
focus on doing the desired behavior in the future,
rather than to get stuck defending their past actions."
Even though high-conflict people themselves are
incapable of empathy for others, Eddy says empathy,
attention, and respect are essential when dealing
with them. "Without [those], they will fight you and
the consequences and often do the opposite of
what you want. When you . . . educate them about
the consequences in a calm and friendly tone, then
you have a much better chance of calming them
and having them help you get the work done."

Regardless of field of practice, an attorney is bound
to meet a high-conflict client or opposing party at
some point in his or her career. Eddy recommends
what he calls the CARS Method: Connect with
empathy, attention, and respect. Analyze options.
Respond to hostility or misinformation. Set limits.

Dealing with a difficult client? Reach
out to the D.C. Bar Legal Ethics at
ethics@dcbar.org or the Bar's Practice
Management Advisory Service at
pmas@dcbar.org for advice specific
to your situation.

Instead of being defensive, Eddy advises attorneys
to show that they want to connect with the clients
*

WASHINGTON LAWYER

*

MAY 2017 25


https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/legal-ethics/ https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/practice-management-advisory-service/ https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/practice-management-advisory-service/ http://www.dcbar.org

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