How to Stay Sane in Crazy-Making Legal Disputes

Jan 15, 2016
Shai Harary

jekyll and hyde
In between sane and certifiable – there is room… and it’s often a courtroom.

As someone who specializes in knock down, drag out legal brawls, I have seen it all. It’s perhaps an understatement to say that disputes bring out the worst in people, but sometimes it’s just the way it is.

I’m talking about situations where one of the parties to the litigation pushes past the limits of rational behavior into an endless spiral of antagonistic actions that cost everyone involved time, money, and yes, sanity.

While I’m not a psychologist or a social worker, I am a lawyer with decades of litigation experience, so it’s clear to me that one of the main drivers of conflict is personality. So in my profession, it’s relatively common to see those with personality disorders (i.e. borderline, narcissistic, etc.) or other mental disorders (i.e. bipolar) use litigation as a means to a disturbing end. In fact, the court system is littered with parties whose “mental state” acts as the spark, which ignites the conflict.

Litigation can be a lot like a street fight. Two people are ready to “throw down” until the punches fly and then, after the first rush of blood, cooler heads prevail. But when one (of both) of the parties don’t possess the emotional intelligence to know when to back off and compromise what you get is… simply put… war.

It’s easy to see why this happens – our legal system, which is inherently centered on conflict, becomes an irresistible proxy for those who are seeking an outlet for their negative emotions and a deep-seated need to feel powerful. Add the ability to finance the conflict, and you have the perfect storm.

There are all kinds of personality disorders that impact a person’s propensity to litigate and also influence his or her conduct within that litigation. Here’s a brief overview of a few common high-conflict personality types and why it makes sense to steer clear of them in a legal context:

Antisocial Personality Disorder: These people do NOT play nicely with others. They chronically disregard the rights of other people, and they often do so with hostility and/or aggression. Deceit and manipulation are also their go-to “happy” places.

Histrionic Personality Disorder: You know a drama king or queen when you see him/her – emotions are persistently excessive and always at a high pitch, and most of their maneuvers are all about grabbing attention.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: When someone has an elevated sense of self, a deep seated feeling of entitlement and a belief that s/he can do no wrong – because s/he is better/smarter/more talented than the rest of us mere mortals – that person will stop at nothing to disregard and disrespect the worth of others.

Borderline Personality Disorder: Angry, unstable and intense, Borderlines have ever-shifting moods, frequent angry outbursts and impulsive, self-destructive behaviors. In other words, they would rather burn everything to the ground, including what they should want to preserve for themselves, rather than take a calm, non-confrontational way out of a difficult situation.

So what does this mean to you?

First, if you do business or otherwise engage with someone who meets some or all of the criteria in any of the above descriptions, you run a much greater chance of a small disagreement ballooning into a full-on lawsuit for no better reason than that person lacks the capacity to keep conflict in perspective.

Secondly, if you get into a legal snafu with someone with a high-conflict personality, then it may be quite difficult to extricate yourself from litigation. This is because, generally speaking, s/he sees her/himself as the center of universe, believes s/he cannot commit any wrongdoing, doesn’t see her/himself as having caused any part of the conflict, ignores your point of view and refuses to work through issues. This behavior results in jury trials that are costly and unpredictable.

So, what can you do if you find yourself on the verge of litigation with someone who is devoid of empathy and is driven solely by negative emotions?

My advice is to ask yourself a couple of key questions:

1) “Do I really want to get into a protracted dispute with this person?”

2) “Does this person have the resources to continue to litigate over an extended period of time?”

In point of fact, I have spent a great deal of time litigating cases where the other side was less than sane but was well funded. That is a toxic mix that often leaves you stranded in expensive and protracted litigation when otherwise normal, reasonable, sane, rational people would have long since resolved the matter.

So if you know your answer to the first question is “no” and your answer to the second question is “yes,” then I’d suggest you run for the hills. Do whatever it takes to avoid legal entanglements with that person. Remember, the combination of cash and craziness is dangerous… so avoid it if you can.

If, however, the answer to #1 is yes, and #2 is either NO or “I don’t care – I need to take care of this,” then there are few things to keep in mind as you proceed:

  • Do not engage with that person directly – that way you’ll avoid reacting or taking that individual’s bait. Because handing over more conflict is usually what s/he wants in the first place. Allow your lawyer to deal with that person (or hopefully, her/his attorney).
  • Be skeptical of their claim of having a strong case against you. People with personality disorders and other mental illnesses tend to over-exaggerate reality and may also be acting grandiose.
  • Document every interaction with specifics (i.e. dates, details of incidents, etc.), and hang on to any paperwork that illustrates your side of the story (i.e., financial statements, contracts, emails, and other written communications). This may not only support your case, it can also serve to remind you that you’re being rational and are doing your best to stay calm in the face of chaos.
  • Be prepared to take the case “all the way.” Never assume that you can escalate a dispute with someone less than rational as a way to make that him/her come to his/her senses. If there is an absence of sane behavior in advance of litigation, be assured that the civil system will not render them more rational. If anything, the opposite is likely to occur.
  • Recognize that often if you have a dispute with a personality-disordered individual, s/he will likely feed off the conflict. It may well give that person a sense of purpose and focus that will not be constructive.

Keep in mind that none of this is personal. Nobody would choose to prolong a legal dispute if s/he were sane and rational.

Your best bet is to disengage, or if that route doesn’t work, seek asylum with a capable attorney. And then if the dispute cannot be resolved before litigation starts, keep in mind that courts look at evidence, not accusations.

Bottom line: When dealing with a less than sane person, don’t make yourself crazy by trying to inject reason into an unreasonable situation. Drop that pretense and accept it is what it is.

Because after all, as Einstein so aptly noted, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons