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Law firms can be magnets for high-conflict personalities. LSJ has these tips for lawyers managing difficult clients and colleagues.

The client who demands to sue for every last cent. The manager who tells you off in the open-plan office. The colleague who only communicates via passive aggressive emails.

Almost all lawyers come into contact with high-conflict personalities at work. The question is not whether, but how we should deal with these people when we meet them.

According to Megan Hunter, a former family law specialist with the Arizona Supreme Court and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute in the US, law firms are magnets for high-conflict personalities. It makes sense – any client seeking legal assistance is in some form of conflict that they failed to resolve through non-legal means. They go to lawyers for help, who themselves are trained to compete in high-conflict situations whether it’s mediation, negotiation or litigation in court. While high-conflict personalities can lead to great results for the client, they are not always easy to work with.

Hunter, who worked on divorces and parenting disputes in the Arizona Supreme Court for 13 years, now travels the world training professionals to work for, with and alongside high-conflict individuals. She suggests these strategies for lawyers facing off against high-conflict clients and colleagues.

High-conflict clients

High-conflict clients are often easy to recognise. As Hunter says, “It’s their way 100 per cent of the way.” They are the clients that drive disagreements all the way to court. They are uncompromising and refuse to meet in the middle.

“A reasonable person without a high-conflict personality can often end up in mediation and agree on settlement before litigating the case,” says Hunter. “The high-conflict personality will refuse to compromise. Their attitude can become vindictive and punishing. It’s as if they want to crush the other party.”

Megan Hunter, CEO and Co-founder, the High Conflict Institute Megan Hunter, CEO and Co-founder, the High Conflict Institute

“For high-conflict personalities, it’s their way 100 per cent of the way.”


Dealing with high-conflict clients

Hunter says many high-conflict clients tend to have narcissistic personality traits and are driven by a fear of feeling inferior. You need to address this fear and show the client that settlement is not surrender – it can actually be a win for them.

“Show them previous similar cases where people met in the middle or settled, and that by settling they can still come out a winner,” says Hunter. “That gives them what they need to stay calm and to problem-solve.”

Once you address their fear, channelling the client’s energy into more positive logical action can stop them from making irrational decisions.

“Maybe they can help research for discovery,” she continues. “Tasks can be done outside your meetings to keep them busy. In person, you can ask them questions, ‘What are your ideas? What are your proposals?’ Keep them busy because they have a tonne of energy to drive their case.”

High-conflict colleagues

“Unfortunately, the people we see in court are people who also have jobs and go to the workplace,” says Hunter. “True narcissists who are driven by feeling inferior will usually succeed, so they often become the managers, supervisors and CEOs. Narcissists are quite common in those positions. Unless an organisation has strong policies to contain and address it, the other employees can be left feeling miserable and it can be a real mess.

“The people around them start walking on eggshells because they don’t want to raise conflict. It’s a huge distraction. What we typically see is the folks around them leave.”

Dealing with high-conflict colleagues

As with all troublesome employees, Hunter says a careful hiring process is essential to prevent high-conflict people from infiltrating your team. High-conflict personalities often come across as charming and are difficult to detect in an interview, so it is important to conduct thorough background checks and implement a probationary period of at least six months.

Beyond the probationary period, Hunter says organisations need to have clear policies and consequences for high-conflict behaviour.

“People who are walking on eggshells around high-conflict employees will often just stay quiet,” says Hunter. “But you can’t stay quiet; you need to call out inappropriate behaviour. The Human Resources Department needs to say, ‘Here is our policy, here is where our policy has been violated, and here are the consequences we have for that.’ Document everything. It has to be very structured.

“If you’re a corporation you’re going to have higher productivity and a competitive advantage if your employees are not distracted by a high-conflict person. If you let the person continue to wreak havoc and make people miserable, it only drains the organisation and is no good for anyone.”

Megan Hunter is co-founder of the High Conflict Institute in Arizona and CEO of Unhooked Media, a US-based media company focused on high-conflict disputes, parenting, divorce and co-parenting, and dating. Hunter trains legal, mental health, business, leadership groups, universities and other professionals in complicated relationships and high-conflict family, legal and business disputes.

Hear Megan present at the following LawInform CPD sessions at the Law Society of NSW on Wednesday 12 June 2019:

Managing “Unmanageable” High-Conflict Family Cases – 8.45am – 12.00pm

Mediating High-Conflict Disputes – 1.00pm – 4.15pm