How to Identify and Deal with Narcissists in Law

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Law360
May 2, 2019

The age-old tale of Narcissus is as follows:

Narcissus is a character in Greek mythology that could not love anyone else because in seeing his own reflection in a pool of water ends up falling in love with himself. Unable to focus on anything else but his reflection, he avoids disturbing his image in the slightest, refuses to drink the water from the lake and eventually dies of thirst.[1]

The term “narcissism” has evolved into a socially derogatory description of personality traits consistent with arrogance and egotism. However, in the most benign sense of the term, narcissism describes characteristics of individuals who lead with their strengths and don't do well with aspects of weakness or vulnerability.

But when the personality style gets in the way and creates repeated and pervasive interpersonal problems, narcissistic traits may cross over into the realm of what is referred to as narcissistic personality disorder.

Those who suffer from NPD tend to lack empathy and find it hard to do anything unless it is to their benefit in some way.[2] Petris Lapis, a performance consultant and an expert on mindfulness who has worked in law, accounting, and banking has described narcissism in understandable terms:

Have you ever come across someone in law who had a fabulous “sales pitch” and then watched in horror as the train wreck of reality unfolded in front of your eyes? If so, you may have been working with a narcissist.[3]

Unfortunately, narcissists may be more likely than others to be attracted to law, business, politics and the media because they seek admiration, fame, wealth, and success.[4] Traits and/or characteristics attributed to successful lawyers include a healthy dose of confidence, the ability to mask weakness in the courtroom, excellent people skills, charisma, exceptional judgment, creativity, communication, and analytical skills.

Narcissists, however self-seeking and manipulative, are usually extremely charismatic and excellent at concealing their negative qualities from the general public. They are also extremely strategic with their words and actions, and because they have such an overly inflated view of themselves, they emit a sense of power and invincibility. All of these qualities are very similar to the characteristics and/or qualities successful lawyers possess — thus, the correlation between narcissists and lawyers is often examined.[5]

Millennial Lawyers — A Generation of Narcissists?

In 2017, millennials represented two-thirds of the workforce and nearly 25 percent of all lawyers. And Baby Boomers are retiring at too fast a rate for the much smaller group of Gen Xers to fill their shoes. In other words, in just a few years, law firms will be built upon the shoulders of millennial lawyers.

Millennials consist, depending on whom you ask, of people born between 1980 and 2000. At 80 million strong, they comprise the largest generational grouping in American history. According to one report, the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for millennials as for the generation that's now 65 or older.[6] Additionally, according to the National Institutes of Health, 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.[7]

Common Traits of Narcissists

Given that a not-insignificant portion of the workforce — and even larger swath of the legal profession — may display at least some narcissistic tendencies, it is becoming even more important to identify the narcissist (or narcissists) in the room. Common characteristics of narcissists follow.[8]

1. Superiority and Entitlement

The world of the narcissist is all about good/bad, superior/inferior and right/wrong. There is a definite hierarchy, with the narcissist at the top — which is the only place he or she feels safe. Law firm culture — with corner offices, voting rights and named partners — may support a narcissistic lawyer’s need to be the best, the most right and the most competent, to do everything their way, own everything, and control everyone.

2. Exaggerated Need for Attention and Validation

Despite all their self-absorbed, grandiose bragging, narcissists are actually very insecure and fearful of not measuring up. Advancement and achievement are extremely important to narcissistic lawyers, and they envision the environment around them as one where they should be the center of others' attention due to their achievements. They constantly try to elicit praise and approval from others to shore up their fragile egos, but no matter how much they’re given, they always want more.

3. Perfectionism

Lawyers are known perfectionists. Narcissistic lawyers thus have an extremely high need for everything to be perfect. They believe they should be perfect, you should be perfect, events should happen exactly as expected, and life should play out precisely as they envision it. The demand for perfection leads the narcissist lawyer to complain and be constantly dissatisfied.

4. Control Freak

Because narcissistic lawyers are continually disappointed with the imperfect way life unfolds, they want to do as much as possible to control it and mold it to their liking. Narcissistic lawyers, often lacking fundamental leadership training, want and demand to be in control, and their sense of entitlement makes it seem logical to them that they should be in control — of everything.

5. Blaming and Deflecting

Although narcissistic lawyers want to be in control, they never want to be responsible for the results — unless, of course, everything goes exactly their way and their desired result occurs. When things don’t go according to their plan or they feel criticized or less than perfect, the narcissistic lawyer places all the blame and responsibility on someone else — often a junior partner, associate or even a client.

6. Lack of Boundaries

Narcissists can’t accurately see where they end and another person begins. Thus, narcissistic lawyers believe that everything belongs to them, everyone thinks and feels the same as they do, and everyone wants the same things they do. They are shocked and highly insulted to be told no. If a narcissist wants something from another, he’ll go to great lengths to figure out how to get it through persistence, cajoling, demanding, rejecting, or pouting. Unlike lawyers who welcome input and opposing opinions from colleagues, a narcissistic lawyer only permits other lawyers to weigh in when those opinions mirror his or her own.

7. Lack of Empathy

Narcissistic lawyers have very little ability to empathize with others. They tend to be selfish and self-involved and are usually unable to understand what other people are feeling. They are also rarely apologetic, remorseful, or guilty. This lack of empathy can not only impact the lawyer’s relationships with opposing counsel, but with support staff and younger lawyers looking for mentorship. And although narcissistic lawyers can often successfully hide a lack of empathy and compassion, a tired lawyer in a lengthy trial could show his or her true colors in front of a jury with potentially catastrophic results.

8. Splitting

The narcissist’s personality is split into good and bad parts, and they also split everything in their relationships into good and bad. They deny their negative words and actions while continually accusing others of disapproving. Narcissists aren’t able to see, feel, or remember both the positive and the negative in a situation. A lawyer bearing this personality trait may be able to effectively argue their client’s position but may face significant challenges building consensus in the context of a leadership role within a firm.

9. Fear

The narcissist’s entire life is motivated and energized by fear. Most narcissists’ fears are deeply buried and repressed. They’re constantly afraid of being ridiculed, rejected or wrong. They may have fears about germs, about losing all their money, about being emotionally or physically attacked, about being seen as bad or inadequate, or about being abandoned. This makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for the narcissist to trust anyone else, which may impact a narcissistic lawyer’s ability to delegate tasks. An unreasonable fear of losing may have an impact upon a narcissistic lawyer’s willingness to test out a novel legal theory or stake a risky position. 

10. Shame

Narcissists don’t feel much guilt because they think they are always right, and they don’t believe their behaviors really affect anyone else. But they harbor a lot of shame. Buried in a deeply repressed part of the narcissist are all the insecurities, fears, and rejected traits that he is constantly on guard to hide from everyone, including himself. The narcissist is acutely ashamed of all these rejected thoughts and feelings. Narcissistic lawyers are no different, and this hidden shame could lead to addictions to drugs and alcohol currently plaguing the legal profession.

Dealing With Narcissists

A recent psychiatric study found that the biggest consequences of narcissism — especially when other psychiatric symptoms were held constant — was suffering by people close to them.[9] Therefore, it is imperative that all lawyers are aware of the best tactics for addressing the narcissist in the room. Failure to employ strategies for dealing with narcissists could result in low morale within a firm or client management issues.

Most experts agree that the best way to deal with a narcissist is to simply stay away.[10] Narcissists lack empathy, they usually don’t work hard, and in a few weeks to a few months they make the people around them miserable. And narcissism is very hard to change.

However, there are times when avoidance is not an option. You may have a narcissistic law partner, co-worker, judge or client, and therefore, there may not be a choice. Clinical psychologist Al Bernstein recommends you kiss up to them or at least keep your mouth shut until you can get the heck out of there.[11] Unfortunately, the path of least resistance when dealing with a narcissistic lawyer or client may be to do what you can to support their inflated view of themselves.

It’s also important to be aware of a concept called “narcissistic injury.” Highlighting to a narcissist that he or she isn’t all they think they are can be like pulling the pin on a grenade — a grenade you may have to see every day of your life. And narcissists are among the most vindictive people you’ll ever meet. Another good reason to avoid confrontation with a narcissist.

It is also important to remember that when dealing with a narcissistic lawyer or client, one should not expect fairness. “Dealing with a narcissist regularly is like having a pet tiger: you always have to be careful that one day he’s going to see you as dinner. But if you don’t have a choice, negotiate hard. This is nobody to be win-win with.”[12]

And as stated above, narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame. However, if they believe something will hurt their reputation, they will think twice. Narcissists are not stupid; there are just things, like other people’s feelings, that they rarely consider. A question you may want to ask is: “What are the optics regarding this decision?” Narcissists want to look good. Help them look good by helping them do good.

What if You Are the Narcissist in the Room?

So how do you avoid becoming a narcissistic lawyer — or stop being one? Briefly, you need to make sure you maintain empathy for others. In other words: Stop trying to stand out, get attention and be so special. It is important to be aware, however, that overcoming narcissism is hard and takes a long time. And if you’re a hard-working narcissist, the disorder may be generating sufficient rewards in the short term to feel like it’s a good idea for the long term. According to human behavior expert Fayr Barkley, Ph.D.:

In order for therapy to “work” for narcissists, they must be willing and able to submit and commit to a very long process for change and have humility and insight to see themselves for who and what they really are.

What do you do then?

Redirect your narcissism. According to authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, “If you can’t stop feeding the ego, you can align your narcissism with behaviors that help the community.”[13] Run a charity, volunteer, win an award for the most pro-bono hours. Find an associate to mentor, either in your firm or through a local bar association. Even if the underlying need is for praise and appreciation, society could benefit greatly if narcissistic lawyers would choose to use their superpowers for good versus evil.

Conclusion

Although it may appear that narcissists are winning at life, they almost always lose, and most are extremely unhappy.

And although the best piece of advice is to stay away from them, one way to combat narcissism in the legal community is to create a culture where kindness and compassion are regarded and admired over bulldog behavior and cut-throat litigation tactics. “Stop glorifying narcissistic people and leaders in the media and start focusing on humility and quiet confidence as positive traits in our leaders and our society.”[14]

According to Yale professor Nicholas Christakis:

We’ve shown that altruistic behavior ripples through networks and so does meanness. Networks will magnify whatever they are seeded with. They will magnify Ebola and fascism and unhappiness and violence, but also they will magnify love and altruism and happiness and information.[15]

Thus, for today’s lawyer potentially swimming in a cesspool of narcissism, remember that “every chance you get, surround yourself with people who are good to you. And be good to them.”[16]

In other words, instead of combating narcissism head-on, a more beneficial approach may be to simply kill it with kindness.


[1] https://www.lawcrossing.com/article/900049985/Are-Lawyers-More-Inclined-to-be-Narcissists/

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/biglaw/21490-what-happens-when-you-work-with-or-for-a-narcissist

[4] http://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/

[5] https://www.lawcrossing.com/article/900049985/Are-Lawyers-More-Inclined-to-be-Narcissists/

[6] https://www.bentley.edu/impact/articles/revenge-millennials

[7] Id.

[8]Compilation derived from a variety of sources, including https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/14-signs-of-narcissism and https://www.businessinsider.com/signs-of-narcissism-2017-12#they-lack-empathy-2

[9] https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist-5-secrets-backed-by-research

[10] https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2016/01/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist-2/

[11] https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist-5-secrets-backed-by-research

[12] Id.

[13] https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2016/01/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist-2/

[14] https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/biglaw/21490-what-happens-when-you-work-with-or-for-a-narcissist

[15] Id.

[16] https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2016/01/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist-2/

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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