Clients Are People Too

Gas Station attendant

Let’s face it; we all have jerks in our lives. Family members, spouses, friends, co-workers, bosses, you name it. Now of course I don’t mean your family, friends or co-workers . . . or do I?

Everyone has a bad day, so I am not talking about temporary jerks or situational jerks.  I’m talking about the real jerks, the people with no self-awareness and only enough emotional intelligence to use it to poke, prod or get what they want purely for their benefit and entertainment.

Ring any bells?

Here are some more signs you might notice; these are people who:

  • No Room for Gray. See things only in black and white with nuance shades of gray.
  • Power Out Personality. People with really intense behavior, like yelling, impulsive.
  • Drama Kings and Queens. Everything amplified, overdone.
  • Finger Pointers. Blaming others and not taking responsibility for their own actions.

Emotional responses are over the top with jerks. Let me lead with a little advice from 18 years of family law and mediation practice, and some personal experience. If you can’t “beat” them, please don’t join them. PLEASE!

If you attack them; they attack you. A never-ending circle of attacks.  If you want them out of your life, be careful how you do it because true high-conflict people will ramp up the “crazy” and dig in deeper if you cut all ties immediately, rather than slowly moving on.

Disclaimer.  I am not a psychologist.  I have a Bachelor of Science in psychology in which I learned a little about personality disorders, but please understand I am in no way qualified to make any diagnosis about your friends, spouse, family members, etc.

However, I try to stay in the business of keeping nice people from getting messed up and over in their divorce. Sometimes those people are or become jerks and my job focuses on saving them from themselves, their jerkhood status, temporary or permanent.

In the 18 years I have served as a divorce lawyer and 11 years as a mediator, I’ve developed a working theory about why some divorces cost tons more than others.

Most of the divorces I have handled where the legal fees (for both sides) exceeded $100,000 have a common thread– a spouse with a high-conflict personality while the other spouse doesn’t know how to avoid the eggshells and landmines.

How do we stop this madness and how have I maneuvered through the tangled web of divorce disagreements and acrimony?  How do you, pre-divorce, maybe thinking about it but not pulling the trigger quite yet, protect yourself from the barrage of blame, negativity and character assassination while trying to have a life, work, raise kids? How do you cope with a person who intensely blames others and cannot seem to stop?

Most of what I’ve learned and tested in my practice, I’ve learned from hard-earned experience and my peers and colleagues – even from my supposed adversaries. (Let me also give a shout out to seminars and books by people like Bill Eddy, one of the gurus of dealing with high-conflict people).

The first thing I learned was that you have to change your mindset.  Before responding to someone’s negative words, you must – first – think about whether your response will trigger a defensive response.  If so, don’t say it!  Can you engage with them and not trigger defensiveness?  Yes, but it takes a lot of hard work and retraining your response system.

Consider whether you need to respond at all.  And if you do believe that a response is required, avoid common responses which your subconscious shoots directly to your mouth before your conscious self can intervene. You know what they are, you say them every time you are under attack: admonishments, advice, apologies.  The Triple A’s.

Try training yourself to instead respond with what Bill Eddy calls BIFF statements–Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.

If you are sending your response in writing, please have someone else read it as others often see things we don’t.  Did you know that after Lincoln died his secretaries found dozens of letters in his desk written in the heat of the moment then shelved for being too harsh and counterproductive?

Right. Wait. More than occasionally, I read my clients’ responses with them and help decide whether it is a BIFF response or not.  BIFF responses aren’t nearly as much fun or cathartic as knee jerk reactions, but that’s the point.  Stop the cycle.  Instead of keeping score of zingers and insults, clients are now noticing much more relief they feel and how quickly the high-conflict situation is defused.

So, about the clients I work with through all this . . .


Who won’t I take as a client?

I’m writing this while iced in. Ok, not just me but a pretty good chunk of the greater Raleigh area. This is not normal, this is North Carolina, we are … coping.

I’ve just discovered what people in Vermont, Montana, and all of Canada have known since birth – snow and ice in the right quantities/mix lead to some pretty wild thinking after a day or so.

So, I started thinking about clients. Clients, past and present certainly, but mostly future clients. Specifically, probably around the 36th hour of flipping through the Netflix rotation (including the ‘Watch it Again’ section), who wouldn’t I want as a client?

That’s a question that every attorney should ask herself, but it’s a tough concept to address in the non-ice-bound world. Because it sounds mean. It sounds like I’m excluding. It sounds … pompous … out of context. Like, ‘I would never represent a father who …”; “I would never represent a mom who …”; and on and on.

It’s none of that. My ‘client I wouldn’t represent if they offered vast riches; the real location of Atlantis; the secret JFK assassination files; and Elvis’ whereabouts’ isn’t a who or a what, it’s a way of thinking.

This is best summed up by a wonderful story Bill James relates in his Baseball Abstract (I’m pretty sure it’s in every edition). In 1916 Ty Cobb was the best hitter in baseball and probably the most famous man in America. Going into the 1916 season he had won nine consecutive batting titles averaging .376 per season.

That’s about the time that Detroit Tigers manager Hughie Jennings received a telegram from an 18-year old kid out in the boondocks of Michigan. It was short and to the point – he could strike out Cobb on three pitches. If Hughie would send him $1.80 for train fare he’d zip down to Detroit and prove it.

For $1.80, Hughie had to know, so he sent it and the kid – very tall, very gangling – showed up. Presumably after a decent warm up, which Cobb presumably watched, the kid got to pitch to the guy who was about to have his first off-year with a .371 average.

It went … poorly. As James related: “Cobb hit his first pitch against the right field wall.  His second pitch went over the right field wall.  The third pitch went over the center field wall. Cobb was thinking they ought to keep this guy around to help him get into a groove.”

It should be noted, by the way, that at the time the center field wall in Nevin Field (later Briggs and Tiger Stadium) was 467 feet away.

The carnage over, Jennings went out to the mound and asked the kid what he had to say for himself.

The kid looked into the batter’s box and replied, “I don’t believe that’s Ty Cobb in there.”

There’s a lot to take from that. This is where I’m at – I want the client who’s willing to take on the Ty Cobbs of the world. I emphatically don’t want the clients who don’t accept reality.


And ….

Back in the ’80s Newsweek launched a magazine, Inside Sports. It was a great magazine. It came out monthly and had articles from great writers, award winning writers, writers that were sports fans but not necessarily sports writers. A sport magazine with some literary aspirations, then.

It folded after about ten years, which was sad but not unexpected – Inside Sports almost perfectly mirrored the rise of ESPN from Canadian Football and Australian Rules Football reruns to dominating the sports scene.

I’m relaying this bit of trivia as a way of explaining that what I’m about to write can’t be backed up by any quotes or references. Inside Sports blinked out of existence before the Internet took over and things got digitized and archived forever. I can find some of the old Inside Sports covers on-line, but not an article lives on.

That’s a shame because the piece I’m thinking about was brilliant, the kind that back in the day before something could be shared a hundred different ways in a Nano-second was handed around groups of friends until it fell apart.

So, the article: it was about a boxer in the 1950s who just wanted one shot at taking on Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight title. This was a guy who traveled the country fighting wherever, whenever he could. Theaters, high school gyms, the occasional decent sized arena, maybe a rare Friday Night Fights TV appearance. His middle name could have been Undercard.

He was the guy, for a while, who up and coming contenders fought to move on. You know, “get by Killer Swede and you’ll get at shot at the tenth ranked contender.”

I say ‘for while’ because it didn’t take long for the word to get out that while he was slow and clumsy, he was virtually impossible to knock-out. He could and would take as much punishment as anyone could mete out over 12 rounds or more. And still be standing.

There wasn’t much question a good, rising boxer would beat him on his way up the ladder. But fighting him was exhausting. He never went down and he never backed off.  Bashing him around to rack up points, then dancing away for the rest of the night was not an option, because this guy never went away.

So, thus far you’re probably thinking this a post about the virtues of ‘never giving up’, fighting it out to the end, and yada, yada, yada.

It’s not. If I was going to do that I would just recap the Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl.

Here’s the thing about our hero (I’m sure he had a great name, I don’t remember) – he kept boxing because he thought he was good. Strike that, he knew he was good. Despite the losses, despite the scarring, despite his blood-soaked trunks, he was sure he was close to greatness. Every night.

He was as impervious to his mediocrity as he was to getting punched. As a matter of fact, being hit didn’t bother him one bit. He was convinced if he just took a few more hits from a few more higher ranked fighters he would rise through the ranks himself. I suppose he thought he’d be the Bizzaro World Heavyweight Champion.

Our guy had one goal in life, he wanted to fight Rocky Marciano. Marciano, in the 1950s, was as big a name as there was in sports. He was the champ and he was well on his way to a 49-0 record with 43 knockouts.

It was news of national import when Marciano didn’t knock an opponent out. Yet our guy, a human punching bag, begged and cajoled his manager for years to set up a fight with the Champ.

His manager, surely a patient soul, wouldn’t allow it. The punchline of the piece came toward the end, when our hero says, “Look, what are you worried about? Do you think if my grandmother punched me on one cheek and Marciano punched me on the other I could tell the difference?”

His manager thought for a moment and replied, “No, and that’s precisely the problem.”

Nothing much scares me in my practice. Except this. I never saw this guy box, but sure have run across the type – men and women – more often than I’d have liked. They are the client that fights for fighting’s sake, or over little things because in their mind everything is important. And they are impervious to nuance and loss.

I won’t represent this type of client (life is too short) but I do represent their spouses. When I run into them on the other side, I resent the fact that they force me to be Marciano with them. Though, I suppose, I shouldn’t worry, they don’t notice anyway.


And …

It took a cartoon – albeit, a funny, wicked, insane cartoon – on Adult Swim to bring home the type of client I don’t quite get. It’s a type familiar to most of us. They are separated – in word if not in fact – and definitely going to pull the trigger on a divorce and everything that goes with it … real soon. The problem is – and may always be – that there’s always a reason for not moving forward. On one side it’s a feeling of guilt and/or shame and/or abysmally low self-esteem and/or fear.

This is especially exacerbated where the other person in the relationship is the flip side of one or more of the above. This forms the basis of a codependency and I’m here to tell you that it is a bear to work with in family law.

I have a friend who filed for divorce five years ago. Then withdrew it. Then separated. Is now filing again. And … we’ll see. A former client dragged her separation out for over four years, every time we tried to address an ending (any ending, at that point) guilt and shame reared their ugly heads and we took three steps back from whence we came.

I tend not to dwell on these things, and usually do that pretty well, but when I’m zipping through channels at 11:30 at night and stumble across the awesome Rick and Morty and they are absolutely nailing it in a show about family therapy … well, I’m blown away.

For those of you who haven’t discovered it yet, Rick and Morty is insane, cynical, and brilliant. It’s loosely based on Back to the Future, with a kid, Morty, zipping around the galaxy with his grandfather, Rick, the smartest man in the galaxy – as he reminds us several times a show.

Their extended family is, to be kind, dysfunctional. Morty’s parents have passive-aggressiveness and great one-liners under their breaths down cold. Mid-way through Season Two, Rick’s had enough. He orders Jerry and Beth into his space car and takes them to a therapy planet with a 100% success rate repairing marriages.

That’s the set up. The therapist explains that “the next step is to watch your mythologs interact together. It’s never pretty, we need to remember that we are not the monsters we sometimes see each other as because we are real, and we are functional, that’s what makes us better than them. We find solutions, we can adapt, we can communicate, and most importantly, we can work together.”

Great stuff, right? Beth and Jerry seem on the path to fixing everything. Until their mythologs interact and proceed to destroy the planet.

The therapist realizes his mistake too late, screams, “Oh, dear God, no …. they’re codependent!”

I can feel the same way when confronted with a client with codependency issues. My best bet, refer the client to a therapist. Rick has this to say about Earth therapy: “You might just as well ask a horse to fix a merry-go-round. I mean, he’ll try his best but mostly he’s just going to be horrified.”

It’s a great (deep, too) line but it’s not my experience. It can work, and boy do I need it with client’s codependency.


We still talk about it today, it was the defining moment of the 19th Century. June 18, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo. The ‘near-run’ battle that saw Napoleon defeated for good and the end of twenty-plus years of almost continuous warfare throughout Europe.

It was a brutal day and the battle wasn’t decided until late evening. The Duke of Wellington, a stoic rock on the field, collapsed that night, in tears, shaking with emotion, he tried to sleep on a pallet while a trusted aide was lying on his bed, dying. He didn’t write his report on the battle until late into the next day, while the wounded were still being culled off the field.

In the days before telegrams, it was a great honor to be chosen to deliver a victory message back to London. Wellington’s choices were few, many of his aides, his second in command, dozens of generals were dead, dying, or badly wounded.

Wellington finished his report and gave it to Lieutenant Colonel the Honourable Henry Percy, his sole surviving Aide-de-camp.

Percy set off for London, still in the uniform he wore at Waterloo. He reached London at 10 PM on the 21st. He tried to present the dispatch at Downing Street, everybody who was anybody was at a dinner party being thrown by a certain high society hopeful named Mrs. Boehm.

It was the social event of the year. Percy jumped back in his carriage and went directly to the Boehm home where he was told he would find His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, soon to be King George IV.

He rushed into the house carrying two captured French Eagles. No one who was there ever forgot the pure drama of the moment when Percy approached the Prince, knelt, and proclaimed, “Victory, Sir, Victory!’

No one, that is, except for Mrs. Boehm. Her take on the historic moment:

“Very few of His Majesty’s subjects ever had a more superb assembly collected together than I had on the night of June 21st, 1815. That dreadful night! Mr. Boehm had spared no cost to render it the most brilliant party of the season, but all to no purpose! Never did a party promising so much, terminate so disastrously! All our trouble, anxiety, and expense were utterly thrown away in consequence of—what shall I say? well, I must say it—the unseasonable declaration of the Waterloo victory. Of course one was very glad to think we had beaten those horrid French; but still, I shall always think it would have been far better if Henry Percy had waited quietly till the morning, instead of bursting in upon us as he did in such indecent haste.”

‘Such indecent haste.” That sums it up. The one type of potential client we really can’t abide, the ‘yes, but what about me’ person. No matter the circumstance – sickness, bad weather, natural disaster, news of the battle that changed European and World history forever – it’s all about them.

Not the ideal client in a family law setting.