How to deal with high-conflict clients
According to Megan Hunter, a former Family Law Specialist with the Arizona Supreme Court and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute in the United States, 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.
Hunter, who worked on divorces and parenting disputes in the Arizona Supreme Court for 13 years, travels the world training professionals to work for, with and alongside high-conflict individuals. On the eve of a seminar on 23 August at the Law Society, she suggests these strategies for lawyers dealing with high-conflict clients.
Recognising 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.
“For example let’s take a trademark infringement case,” says Hunter. “An individual feels that a trademark they hold has been infringed and now they need to pursue legal action – which is usually fine and within the law. But a reasonable person without a high-conflict personality can often end up in mediation and agree on settlement before litigating the case. 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.”
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.
“There’s a strategy that we call ‘connect and shift’,” says Hunter. “If you see them getting irritated or angry, you try to connect with them in some way to bring them back down. Then you shift their energy into logical problem-solving and get them to do the thinking.
“Maybe they can help research for discovery. 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? What options can you come up with?’ Keep them busy because they have a tonne of energy to drive their case.”
About the author
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. She will be speaking at the Law Society of NSW on 23 August. Register for her CPD seminar here.
Clients, matters and risks – how to identify, assess and treat risks within legal practice
Tuesday 28 February
9am – 1pm, 4 CPD units