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Book Review of Narcissism and Family Law

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Book Review of Narcissism and Family Law: A Practitioner’s Guide 2021 by Dr Supriya McKenna and Karin Walker

I admit that I don’t or at least I didn’t believe in Narcissism. But even if narcissism is just a ‘flavour of the month ’term it’s ok because this is a very useful book and all family law practitioners ought to read, absorb and act on it.

The book could easily be entitled, ‘How to deal with really awful clients and/or their really awful ex partners,,,,how to help them get through a divorce…. whilst not wrecking your own wellbeing or reputation.’

I admit that I have my doubts about psychiatric disorders given that listed homosexuality was listed as such until very recently. So why should I believe in narcissistic personality disorder?  The book is so detailed about what such people are like, that it’s hard to dismiss.

I had to stop reading for a while as I felt so depressed to find that some people could be like this; I simply had to stop immersing myself in examples of their terrible behaviour.  The character case studies are nevertheless one of my favourite features of the book.

Yet the writers manage not to demonise narcissists but rather explain that they are behave in these ways because of their own childhood.  Most narcissists won’t ever realise that they have it; it’s just how they cope with the world. Even more concerning is that only a very few of them will be able to change.

We are told that narcissists only represent about 1% of the population (phew!). Even if you don’t come across very many in your legal career – you will always remember them.  And not in a good way.

The book examines:

  • What is a narcissist?
  • Case studies of the different sorts of narcissists (with wonderful detail)
  • How narcissists behave (the playbook)
  • What to expect of you represent a narcissist or the other lawyer is representing one
  • Case studies of these hideous cases (with brilliant moments/highlights where the narrative stops and suggest how lawyer could have done things differently)
  • Children of narcissists
  • Practitioner’s wellbeing  

I am often called by potential clients describing their ex as a narcissist. Is it because they have done a search on google and come up with this diagnosis? My experience is that they all too often go on to exhibit all the features of narcissism in that very same call.  This is not unusual as the book recognises.  Even if they are right and their ex is a narcissist, I usually decline to act. It’s just not worth it.

If you take a call from a possible client and your instinct is to run for the hills – you really should do just that.  If they are overly nice to you, flatter you and tell you how marvellous you are; this should ring alarm bells. This is a feature of narcissism, and it’s just a phase called ‘love bombing’. Over time, this will change and the very fabric of your professional persona and boundaries will be shredded; if you aren’t careful.

The book gives helpful tips about how to deal with the narcissist right through to the end of the case or how to withdraw without breaking professional rules and with grace. It details how to protect yourself and your firm’s fees.

Much of this you will have learned with years of (bitter) experience in this business; I’d say if you are more than 20 years qualified as a family lawyer you probably do all the suggestions.  (If you have worked in frontline customer service you probably have this sussed too).  To save you the trouble of having to live through those 20 years, just read the book. Here are some good practice examples:

  • Look out for the signs of a client becoming ‘difficult’.
  • Don’t put junior people on the case.
  • Don’t leave counsel on their own.
  • Make sure you take money up front for fees (if you have an office account then fix them and get them)
  • Don’t ever breach the Law Society Protocol or Resolution code of conduct – and if the client insists you do – this is a very good time to end the retainer
  • Don’t set deadlines – they don’t work with the narcissist
  • Don’t procrastinate – do.
  • Learn how to deal with these people – there are tricks detailed in the book that work. Frankly these tricks would work with most difficult clients

I don’t agree with the authors that family law practitioners tend to be so empathic and caring that they are, by implication, ‘sitting ducks’ for the narcissist. To be successful at this job, for any length of time, you have to know your professional boundaries; know when to say no. 

If you have trouble with difficult clients (or their ex’s) read this book. It’ll help with them and in particular with those pesky narcissists.