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Bar News - May 5, 2006

Book Review: "High Conflict People in Legal Disputes" By Bill Eddy


High Conflict People in Legal Disputes by Bill EddyHave you ever had a client who persistently clung to unrealistic expectations of an impossibly favorable outcome despite your advice and threatened suit against you when the equivocal judgment you predicted was entered?  How about the client whose diseased relationships in his family and community gave rise to never-ending litigation? Or a client whose incessant and unnecessary communications soaked up your secretary’s time and made you dread hearing the name?


Bill Eddy, an attorney, mediator, and licensed social worker, posits, in High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, that these difficult clients suffer from diagnosable personality disorders that follow them into legal disputes and shape their relationships with legal professionals.  Eddy argues that by understanding these disorders and the predictable patterns of behavior their sufferers display, legal professionals can learn to build more productive client relationships, provide more effective advocacy, reach more satisfying resolutions, and discourage unnecessary litigation.


Eddy’s point is alluringly plain:  because a person’s personality influences his or her behavior as a participant in legal processes, people with personality disorders initiate, participate in, and respond to legal proceedings in uniquely distorted ways.


Eddy sets forth several varieties of disordered personality that he suspects are prevalent among participants in legal disputes:  borderline, narcissistic, antisocial, and histrionic.  These personality types seek and sow conflict.  Eddy recounts the diagnostic criteria associated with each disorder, identifies the motivations driving each personality, and illustrates each type with anecdotes culled from well-known headlines, records of real cases, and experiences from his own practice. 


While Eddy’s frequent resort to storytelling enlivens his prose and makes it accessible to non-professionals, the abundance of both hypothetical and over-hyped anecdotes weighs down Eddy’s analysis and buries its therapeutic foundation.  Worse, Eddy’s over-reliance on real and contrived examples to reach conclusions about high conflict personalities in legal proceedings makes his effort feel under-researched.  For example, Eddy frequently states or implies that more legal disputes are now driven by high conflict personalities than ever before.  This conclusion is never supported by reference to any data-based or research-derived measure; instead, it is preceded and followed by an example in which a diagnosed or supposed personality disorder has wreaked havoc in a dispute.


Eddy’s conversational case-study technique works best when he refers to cases in which a party has actually been diagnosed with a personality disorder.  His review of records and transcripts in those cases seems thorough, and he gracefully weaves mention of those cases into his analysis.  Less effective, however, is his incorporation of anecdotes related to high profile cases and other cases in which no diagnosis was made or addressed in the record.  When addressing those illustrations, Eddy too often seems to strategically sift through their facts to link them with his analysis by means of convenient supposition. 


After explaining some common personality disorders, Eddy suggests strategies for effectively representing people with those disorders, reasonably resolving their claims, and responding to legal process initiated or perpetuated by them.


The book is most useful when outlining specific techniques for maintaining pleasant and productive professional relationships with volatile non-professionals.  Although intended to help professionals manage disputes involving litigants with personality disorders, Eddy’s advice for dealing with people with high conflict personalities would be well-taken when dealing with any client, with or without a diagnosed or suspected personality disorder. 


For example, because a client with borderline personality disorder fears abandonment, he/she can be expected to call the attorney’s office very often with inconsequential information or unnecessary questions.  Eddy suggests that the attorney be sure to accept the first such call.  After that, explains Eddy, the client will feel reassured and will not call as often as he/she may have otherwise.  This advice, if implemented, would create a more secure environment for every client, not only those involving borderline personalities.


Another suggestion offered by Eddy is to assign high-conflict clients specific and well-structured tasks, such as compiling paperwork, so that they feel like participants in and in control of their cases.  While creating client-managed tasks might not be appropriate in every case, it could prove a productive way to involve the client and unburden the attorney in cases involving clients without high-conflict personalities.


When dealing with a narcissistic party in mediation, Eddy recommends acknowledging the party’s accomplishments and deferring to him in small matters.  This allows him to feel comfortably superior and leaves him more likely to accept the mediator’s authority and ideas.  Taking steps to ensure that both narcissistic and non-narcissistic participants in legal processes feel valued by professionals and valuable to the processes in which they are involved would enhance their sense of ownership in every case.


A danger posed by Eddy’s initial presentation of personality disorders is that it may encourage attorneys and other professionals to dehumanize, label, and categorize clients and other participants in legal disputes according to their informally and unprofessionally diagnosed personality disorders.  The second half of his book neutralizes that danger by reminding professional readers that the most effective style of practice is one that adjusts to suit each client’s needs.


High Conflict People in Legal Disputes is designed to assist attorneys, mediators, and adversaries in disarming high-conflict litigants and encouraging them to seek and accept reasonable resolutions.  Eddy’s explanation of personality disorders is too saturated with stories to prove particularly useful; however, the stock of suggestions for improving client and conflict management offered in the book’s second half make it a worthwhile read for any attorney hoping to confine conflict to the courtroom.


High Conflict People is published by Janis Publications Inc.


Nancy Kolocotronis now lives in Los Angeles, she has been a member of the NH Bar since 2005. She formerly worked for the NH Public Defender and was amember of the Bar Journal Editorial Board.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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