“Just who do you think you are?”
If you find yourself constantly asking that question while handling a case or legal matter — you might be interacting with a narcissist, a personality type that craves and demands special treatment.
In our legal world, a narcissist can make our lives difficult. The problem person can be your client, another party or even opposing counsel. To get a perspective on how to deal with someone that shows signs of narcissistic personality disorder, I sought out Eugene Roginsky, a licensed clinical social worker, for a professional perspective.
In his words, “There are strategies in dealing with these types of personalities — but it is not an easy process.”
How to deal with narcissists?
A simple strategy came up during my discussion with Roginsky: He suggested having narcissists think they came up with an idea. For example, you could imply they provided you with inspiration for a certain solution and then ask for their approval to pursue it.
Focus on the process, the solution and not so much on the actual problem. Keep in mind narcissists may ask legal professionals to bend their own moral and/or ethical rules. A narcissist would challenge, “If you really cared about your clients, and if you were as good a lawyer as you claim, you would find a way to help me.” They may quickly go from praising you, “I heard you are the best, and “I work only with the best,” to demonizing you, “And here I thought you were a smart attorney.”
Try not to force your opinions or provide objective viewpoints until you develop trust. External perspectives matter very little to narcissists. Your opinions, especially if presented in an emotional manner, will not be accepted and may even be a trigger for aggravation. This could trigger narcissistic rage, which may manifest itself as tantrums, threats or actions intended to damage you or your practice.
Narcissism and divorce
Our adversarial system provides narcissists with an almost irresistible opportunity, regardless of the dispute. In their minds, a court decision provides a clear winner and loser, decided by an authority. I find my practice area of divorce both attracts and challenges the composure of this personality type.
There is plenty for narcissists to gain from divorce, particularly as a tool for their rage. They may use various procedures available to delay the process, deplete others’ resources, win minor victories and even persuade their would-be exes to take them back.
To elaborate, here are some common narcissistic practices you may encounter no matter what type of case you have.
Demanding their time in court
The courtroom is a perfect venue for narcissists. It offers validation from important people and an opportunity to use charm. It could even allow for some embarrassment or belittlement of others. Short of instances of overt abuse, judges do not always have options available to stop narcissists’ schemes.
Recognizing this tendency as early as possible will help increase your chances of countering these behaviors. If you know somebody who craves a grand stage, you might want to make negotiations as formal and complete as possible. Encourage everyone to show up with excessive respect for every meeting.
Treating others like tools
There is a difference among being concise, terse and curt; it is one thing to be economical but another entirely to treat people simply as a means to an end. If you feel like an underling — as though your own will is not even recognized, you could be taking orders from a narcissist. Stay polite, as your counterpart might be baiting you into a reaction.
Constantly asking about loopholes
“Do you have to declare every asset”? “Are you sure my spouse needs to see the children?” “Is there some precedent that lets me do X, Y or Z?”
These are the types of questions everybody might be tempted to ask during legal disputes. Narcissists possess a deep feeling of entitlement. In a narcissist’s mind, normal laws that apply to others, do not apply to him or her. An attempt to explain laws may set off anger. “Are you with me?” “Are you my lawyer, or are you against me?”
Narcissists tend not only to ask, but also push the issue. Ignoring or deflecting the request will probably only increase their tenacity. You may want to prepare to provide assurances or evidence of your efforts toward getting them the special treatment they believe they deserve. Focusing on the goal. and making a narcissist a part of the process to reach this goal, maybe helpful in minimizing narcissistic rage.
Exaggerating contributions and injuries
In some situations, one party is unclear about the contributions or losses of another party. Generally speaking, you might attempt to solve this by simply sharing facts.
Unfortunately, that strategy might not work with narcissists. For you, the case is as simple as a legal dispute you need to guide, in order to reach an agreement. For the narcissist, it could be a way to compensate for personal loss of status and power as a spouse. They could be using inside knowledge to their favor, exaggerating both sides of the conversation to the appropriate threshold of doubt.
Assuming the role of self-vindicator
Narcissists like to control situations, emotions, people or whatever else is available. It stokes a feeling of superiority. When someone takes action a narcissist perceives to be against him or her, it could subvert that control.
The resulting rage could manifest in various ways. For example, they could assume the role of the ultimate victim or adopt an arrogant, aggressive attitude. This behavior will probably amplify when a narcissistic person thinks he or she is not getting enough attention.
An inconvenient fact or an unfavorable turn of events can be perceived as an instant attack that may be followed by narcissistic rage. This rage will occur especially in situations when one’s own entitlement and sense of importance are challenged.
Arriving late to important meetings
Narcissists are rarely on time. Being late gives them the ability to control other people’s actions; there is nothing to do but wait around until the narcissist comes to the table. There will be little tolerance on their part if asked why they are late to a meeting? Or, the reason given may be one of amplified importance, “I was on a very important call with someone who is very high up in a Fortune 500 company.”
Tardiness also gives narcissists an opportunity to state how busy, flustered or important they are — whichever attribute gives them the greatest advantage. Considering the motivations, framing lateness as a risk to status might help in some situations.
Narcissism in a nutshell
Anyone could be a narcissist: your client, opposing counsel, a partner in your firm, an associate on your team or even you. Here are a few red flags:
- Consistently lying to gain advantage
- Justifying lies and manipulations with claims of personal superiority
- Exaggerating achievements or injuries
- Seeking out and basking in praise
- Having few — if any — professional boundaries
- Disproportionately responding to perceived slights
- Demanding positive attention
- Requiring special favors or enhanced services, then not offering the same in return
- Valuing only interactions with important, successful people
- Poor listening skills
It is not likely all your clients who demand frequent updates have narcissistic personality disorder.
Not every ambitious young associate is a narcissist. Even if you are unable to pick them out of a crowd, there is still hope: Many of the techniques you might use to handle these challenging personalities could work on almost anyone.
The solutions tend to involve lifting a person up. After all, few people resent praise to a greater degree than narcissists who crave it.