Narcissists are often among the most successful CEOs, surgeons, entertainers, and other high-profile individuals. Most of us can ignore their grandiose, “I’m the greatest,” entitled behavior, but their attorneys can’t, for the simple reason that these individuals often bring a trail of chaos along with them that regularly lands them in legal hot water.
Narcissism is defined as a psychological disorder that stems from a profound lack of self-worth and insecurity. Narcissism shows up primarily as an exaggerated sense of self-importance, entitlement, an excessive need for admiration, and an inability to withstand the slightest criticism.
Narcissistic clients are a handful. There you are, trying to do your lawyerly best with a person who insists that they know it all and are better than you at everything. Narcissistic clients expect you to cater to their every whim, adopt their every attitude and belief, worship the ground they walk on, and blame you for whatever deviates from their “obviously” far more effective/powerful/intelligent strategy, however ludicrous. All of this interferes with your ability to handle their case unless you are armed with specific techniques.
These techniques are not intended to help you change a narcissist’s behavior–that is impossible. Nor will they help you to change a narcissist’s beliefs. That won’t work either. What they might do is help you manage the narcissist, so that you can do your work and win your case.
Reflect, don’t argue
Narcissists know they are always right—no matter what. The temptation is to argue with your narcissistic clients, since you know, from your legal standpoint, that they are patently wrong. All you will accomplish by setting them straight, no matter how gently and diplomatically, is to get them riled up, and with that, subject yourself to a stream of verbal abuse and a staunchly uncooperative client.
Narcissistic Client: “This case is bullsh**! It’s my company, I built it, I own it, I can pull funds from it whenever I want for whatever I want. I don’t give a sh** what the by-laws say. What idiot lawyer drew this thing up anyway?” The client then tosses the document to the floor with disdain.
As you pick up the document from the floor, you’re tempted to respond with “You may think you own the company, but in fact, you have a duly elected board of directors, shareholders, and a long-established set of by-laws that you—like everybody else—must follow.”
That’s all very sane, rational, and correct. However, this is what you’re likely to get next from a now enraged client.
Narcissistic Client: “I am not ‘everybody else!’ I am the damn CEO, and I expect to be treated accordingly! I could wipe the floor with you and every one of your so-called legal team.” The client then continues on, indulging in the adult version of a three-year-old’s tantrum.
You’ve now alienated your client. Bite your tongue, and instead start by reflecting, which means to mirror back whichever of your client’s words you legitimately can, without adopting the client’s point of view.
Lawyer: “You’ve certainly built a fine company, Mr. Smith, as your success attests to.” Don’t bother with what you can’t agree with; pretend you didn’t even hear it. Leave the tossed document on the floor. It’s irrelevant to the task at hand.
Beam with undisguised admiration at this paragon of accomplishment; let him soak in your praise before you move on to technique number two.
Praise is mother’s milk to narcissists. They can never get enough of it. However, since you’re not in the business of sycophancy, one or two phrases are usually sufficient, especially when tailored to how they perceive themselves.
Use the magic words “and” and “we.”
Arguing never works, but “praise and lead” does. First, you gave a dose of praise. Now you’re going to lead your client to what you need with the magic word “and.”
Lawyer: “And we want to handle this case so that you can continue to be the successful CEO that you so manifestly are. For this, we need to…”
Use the word “we” to enroll the narcissistic client in a common cause, winning the case. Don’t tell him “I need you to…” because in doing so you set yourself up as an authority, and in the narcissist’s mind, he alone is the authority on all things. The narcissist’s knee-jerk will be to reject whatever you suggest or need.
Offer action bullets.
Narcissists have little patience with anyone else’s concerns. However, they didn’t get successful by doing nothing. They are most often people of action, so action steps make sense to them.
Frame whatever you need from your narcissistic clients in action terms, keeping them as short as possible. Delegate as much as you can to their assistants.
Lawyer: “We need the email chain from Ms. Jones. We can have our team look for it once we have access to the company server. Shall we ask Assistant X or Tech Y for access?”
By now, your narcissistic client is texting or on the phone to someone, bored with the whole process. Pick your solution, and reframe it as a bullet question.
Lawyer: “Assistant X?”
If all you get is a nod, say something like, “I’m sorry, I missed that. Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no?’ ”
You need a verbal response that you can memorialize. The next technique is why.
Narcissists are masters of double-talk, deception and what mere mortals might call outright lies. They will agree to your plan on Monday, and rage at you on Tuesday, denying their agreement. Better to document their every word, your every interaction, so that when they do deny what they agreed to, you can respond with “Huh. Well, let’s go back and take a look at that. You’ve got so much on your plate it may have slipped your mind.”
Notice that you are always in one way or another, validating or praising your narcissistic clients, even when you’re actually correcting one of their “untruths.”
If possible, set a precedent of audio recording all meetings, and never saying on the phone anything of import, unless those calls are knowingly (to both parties) recorded. Or, take notes, or have an assistant record verbatim.
Whichever you use, frame your documenting with something along the lines of: “What you have to say is so valuable, Mr. Smith, that I don’t want to chance mishearing a single word. Thank you. I appreciate your help with this.”
Ignore blame, focus on solutions.
Narcissists will fire off blame in any and all directions whenever something doesn’t go their way. Once again, it’s useless to argue with narcissistic clients or offer any attempt to correct their perception.
Ignore the blame, and move on to the solution.
Narcissistic Client: “These damned delays are messing up my schedule. How can I run my company when I’m having to re-arrange everything. It’s your damn fault! Can’t you do the simplest thing? What kind of an incompetent lawyer are you?”
Breathe. Deep. Again. I am not kidding. Taking deep breaths helps calm and soothe us, which you’ll need when faced with the barrage of blame a narcissist will unload on you. Then ignore it.
Lawyer: “Delays certainly complicate things, and they are a fact of the legal system. We will coordinate the next mediation with Assistant X. Thank you for working with us on this. It’s much appreciated.”
Notice the use of the words “and” and “we.” Avoid the word “but” – it merely puts people on the defensive, the last thing you want with a narcissist.
By using these techniques, you are setting boundaries for your narcissistic clients. By ignoring their entitled and often inappropriate behavior, you are managing them much like a parent does when a child throws a tantrum. It means you must take the high road and avoid your natural responses to childish behavior. Ignoring works much better than arguing — as long, of course, as the narcissist isn’t physically abusing you or your staff, which is highly unlikely. Narcissists generally restrict their bad behavior to verbal abuse, especially at the CEO/upper management level of narcissist you will generally encounter in the course of your profession.
About the Author
Noelle C. Nelson, Ph.D. is a trial consultant who specializes in trial strategy, witness preparation, and focus groups. She is the author of Connecting With Your Client (ABA) and the blog A Winning Tip. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.