Source of article Jury Insights.

Advanced Witness Preparation
Challenging Personality Traits

Part 2
Managing Challenging Personality Traits

In a recent post, “Part 1, Identifying Challenging Personality Traits,” which you can find at this website-blog,  I wrote about certain types of client characterological issues that are often exacerbated by the adversarial nature of litigation and may undermine successful settlement or trial outcome. While my title refers to Witness Preparation, the theme of this post is managing the client with Challenging Personality Traits (the CPT client) throughout your attorney-client relationship. If the attorney’s relationship with the CPT client breaks down or becomes adversarial, successful witness preparation will not occur.

I discussed the work of Bill Eddy, an attorney who also has a social work background, has addressed the subject of “High Conflict” clients very thoroughly, and recommended that you pick up one or more of his books.

As in my Part 1 posting, I have incorporated several of Mr. Eddy’s conceptualizations in this post.


 In review of the Part 1 post, Mr. Eddy focuses primarily on High Conflict Personality traits associated with narcissistic personality, borderline personality, paranoid personality, histrionic personality and antisocial personality.

Why do these clients behave this way?

Persons who express these traits have difficulty managing their feelings and emotional responses. Okay, what does this mean? In a broad brushstroke, the animal nervous system can be thought up as a survival preservation system. Events that trigger threats to survival result in fright, flight, or fight responses. During human maturation, especially during teenage years, we are supposed to learn to discern the difference between various types and levels of threat to survival and develop appropriate coping skills. Achieving these coping skills define what we refer to as “maturity.” In a nutshell, failure to successfully manage our emotional response is the result of experiencing an event as a greater threat to survival than it really is.

Failure to react with an emotionally appropriate response is read as “immaturity.” Typically, there is more to the problem than just failures in social learning during adolescence. Failure to develop coping skills or maintain control over appropriate emotional responses is probably the result of an amalgam of factors that may be in part biological, part cultural, part absence of critical emotional experiences during early developmental stages and/or part trauma and abuse.

One neuro-psychological explanation is that this amalgam of factors causes a disruption in the ability of the brain to coordinate messages across the corpus callosum from the left (thinking) brain to the right (emotional) brain.

I have heard that when the next Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) is published in May 2013, personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality, borderline personality, paranoid personality, histrionic personality and antisocial personality, will be dropped as diagnostic “disorders.” This makes sense to me as many of the personality traits associated with these diagnoses overlap from one disorder to another, and probably represent a common etiology.

People who exemplify these character traits evoke similar reactions from others, acting out in self-centered, manipulative ways without sensitivity to others.

Expect an entourage of other difficult persons. 

To make matters worse, people with these traits tend to alienate others, and those who are not alienated by them often have adapted to their maladaptation– out of fear, financial necessity or relational complementarity. So, when you have a client with challenging personality traits, that person is often accompanied by an entourage of others who also see the world in distorted ways, and will not be much help to you in correcting unrealistic thinking and inappropriate behavior.

You cannot be their psychotherapist.

Persons with Challenging Personality Traits are highly resistant to change. You WILL NOT be able to change the CPT client within the structure of the attorney-client relationship. You must develop skills to manage their “volatility” and tendency to “act out” towards you and your staff, opposing counsel and clients, and the Court.

Bill Eddy describes the importance of listening to the CPT client with receptive behaviors of Empathy, Attention and Respect (giving the client your “EAR”), and then responding with a set of active behaviors that are Brief, Informative, Friendly but Firm (“BIFF”).

Here are some things to remember and do when working with clients who have Challenging Personality Traits.

1. It’s not unique in relation to you– The behavior of the CPT client is not “personal” to you or anyone else. You may feel attacked, criticized or undermined by the CPT client. It’s not personal; this is how this client behaves in all relationships when under perceived threat. When you feel the client is being provocative, you must not react angrily, punitively or with threats of abandoning the client. You may feel that the CPT client is behaving “childishly,” but it is important not to respond in a parental or condescending way.

2. Expect unrealistic thinking– Expect the CPT client to communicate content in illogical, naive, distorted or unrealistic ways.

While it is important for you to be able to paraphrase and reflect back your understanding of what the CPT client is saying, you must do so without “agreeing” with distorted thinking, desire for revenge (often the CPT’s understanding of “justice”) or unrealistic demands. It is important that once you recognize a CPT client, you maintain a somewhat higher degree of skepticism with regard to the credibility of what the client is presenting.

3. Maintain professional distance– Although important in working with all clients, it is particularly important to maintain professional boundaries and distance when working with the CPT client. The CPT client may behave as if “entitled” to special treatment from you and your staff, and when it does not occur, the CPT client may feel rejected, abandoned or disrespected. It is important from the outset to define and set limits describing how the professional attorney-client relationship will operate.

4. Don’t attempt to placate, fix or rescue– You will not be able to “fix” many of the complaints and demands made by the CPT client, or live up to the CPT client’s fantasies and expectations for you to rescue the client’s identification as the “victim.” You must avoid becoming a participant in a persecutor (opposing party, counsel, or judge), victim (CPT client) and rescuer (attorney) triangular configuration; once you become part of that tableau, you may become the failed “rescuer” and just another “persecutor.” Instead, it is important to discuss your inability to fix things by attributing your limitations to external forces and describing potential adverse consequences. As opposed to immediately saying, “I won’t do that” or “You can’t do that,” say, “I am concerned that if we do what you have proposed it may result in the judge responding by…” or “I believe that if you bring up ‘x’ in your testimony, jurors (the judge) will see it as…”

5. Don’t dash off emails– With the CPT client it is important to be very careful with email and other communications. The CPT client is extremely sensitive to being “dissed.” As Bill Eddy suggests, your responses should be brief and factually informative, friendly and firm (BIFF). It is important to avoid opinions of optimism or reassurance about things that you have no control over. Avoid words that have the goal of placating the CPT client. Read you email to yourself aloud before you click your mouse.

6. Give homework– You may find that it is very helpful to give the CPT client “homework” to do between meetings based upon the individual’s strengths and capabilities. Homework can be anything from the creation of a diary, to assembling any type of factual information relevant to the case. The task focus will assist you in managing your relationship with the CPT client over time because: (a) it involves the client in an activity that creates involvement, a sense of co-worker bonding and a feeling of usefulness in the litigation process; (b) it communicates respect for the client, while at the same time reduces the client’s fear of abandonment; (c) it may to some extent reduce or distract the client from distorted thoughts and unrealistic expectations.

7. Ask for proposals– When the CPT client demonstrates unrealistic expectations or makes unreasonable demands, ask the client to suggest a proposal or set of proposals in writing for you to think about. Unless you believe that the client may immediately act out (e.g. calling the opposing party or counsel etc.), tell the client that you want to take some time to think about the proposals. Then handle your response to the proposals by using the brief, informative, friendly, firm approach (BIFF) mentioned above.

8. Suggest mock juror research to provide an external opinion-When a CPT client rejects your use of an externalizing response (such as, “I am concerned that a jury will not value your case as highly as you believe), suggest mock juror research that can provide externalized input.

9. Do not act out yourself-It may be tempting, due to frustration or prior bad experiences with a CPT client, to try to significantly change the rules for representation of the CPT client. An alarm should go off in your head if you feel desperate to control the CPT client by creating a special contract in an attempt to limit your responsibilities or time commitments. You may inadvertently tread on client rights or other attorney ethical issues.

10. Witness Preparation-In my Part 1 post, I discussed that witness preparation flows from dealing with (a) client character issues to (b) case strategy content issues to (c) witness performance communication issues. Your successful management of the CPT client from the very beginning of the attorney-client relationship will have a huge impact on your ability to conduct successful witness preparation for that client.


Alan J. Cohen, Ph.D.