Podcast: The One Biggest Piece of Advice for New Lawyers from Bill Eddy, JD/Therapist

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews Bill Eddy, an award-winning mediator, attorney, author, and therapist who developed "high conflict personality theory" and is an expert in dealing with high conflict people in the practice of law. Bill is the Co-Founder and CIO of the High Conflict Institute and faculty at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

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Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today, we're going to jump to a little bit of everything. And even if you're going through the admissions process, or if you're a 1L or a 2L or a 3L, this podcast, I think, unlike any other maybe we've done is going to hit you in the head when you're first starting out as a lawyer. According to Bill Eddy, the expert and professional who we have on, 20% of clients of lawyers are high conflict people. Bill is an expert of how to handle those who escalate drama, escalate arguments, and how to de-escalate or extract yourself from those situations.

Bill is a lawyer, he's a therapist, he's a law school faculty member at Pepperdine. He has a blog on Psychology Today with well over 3 million—I think it's approaching 4 million—downloads and views. And we talk for 20 minutes about just what I mentioned, how do you identify a high conflict person? How do you identify if you are a high conflict person? What are the antidotes to dealing with these kinds of people? 10% of your clients, when you're a lawyer, are going to take up 90% of your time, and here's the way out. So without further delay, I'm joined by Bill Eddy.

Bill, it's great to have you. Thank you for taking the time.

Bill Eddy: Thanks so much, Mike. Good to be on with you.

Mike: So I'm fascinated by your background. And when we first read your bio, I would have sworn that you were a JD, practicing lawyer that became a therapist. It makes sense. Turns out, you're a therapist who then went and got a JD. Can you sort of delve into that a little?

Bill Eddy: Yeah, so what happened is, I liked being a therapist, but I also like solving family problems and volunteered at our community mediation center and found I love mediation, where you sit down for a couple hours, you solve a problem, put it in writing, and people walk away with a plan.

Well, there weren’t a lot of people with mediation jobs back in the 1980s, and so I saw lawyers were starting to get paid to do mediation. So I figured, I'll go to law school, and then when I come out, I'll do mediation. But when I was in law school, I realized I like the practice of law, so I'll do a couple years as a lawyer, and then I'll do my full-time mediation. Well, I ended up, because of my counseling background was so helpful in family law, and I practiced 15 years in family court and then switched to full time mediation. So the combination is just what really excited me and helped lead me to the high conflict stuff.

Mike: I'm often asked, what’s one piece of advice I would give a new attorney, a new lawyer, someone straight out of law school. Would yours be, “Go become a therapist as well”?

Bill Eddy: You know, what helped me, being a therapist, becoming a lawyer, is not taking personally a lot of what got said to me. Because I realized, “Oh, well, that other party or that other lawyer probably has a mental health problem, and I don't have to take it personally.” That would be my big lesson, don't take it personally. Think about where you're going, what you need to do, and whatever they throw at you, let it bounce off and keep going.

Mike: I know when you started, this wasn't the issue, but now in the world of the anonymity of social media, we're basically getting shot arrows at us left and right. And one way I think of it is, this person doesn't know me, so I'm just not going to respond when they shoot an arrow at me.

Bill Eddy: Yeah, and that's really a good part of that attitude. They don't know me, and I don't have to absorb those slingshots.

Mike: Yeah, I think I almost interrupted you, right, I mentioned one piece of advice for a new lawyer and your face lit up. Did you have something else you wanted to add to what you would give a brand new lawyer as far as piece of advice?

Bill Eddy: Oh, well, there are many things. First of all, be prepared for high conflict clients and high conflict cases. So they don't catch you by surprise. You get yourself ready for that. But then, when you're dealing with that, is know your case—like if you have a high conflict party on the other side or high conflict opposing counsel—know your case better than the high conflict counsel. Because high conflict lawyers really pick on new lawyers, and I've seen it happen, and I remember experiencing that myself. Know your case better because often, they don't really know their case, and they're just saying stuff.

Mike: I love that. And not even just for high conflict people but particularly as a new lawyer, what is a high conflict person and what are the archetypes of it? And are you the founder of that terminology?

Bill Eddy: Good question. So let's start with two things. One is I have my background as a therapist, including working in psychiatric hospitals and getting trained in personality disorders. The diagnostic bible of mental health professionals, the DSM, the third edition came out 1980, when I was trained. At the same time, in family law, there was starting to be what they called “high conflict families.” And by the mid-1980s, researchers, psychologists were talking about high conflict families in family court who would fight over custody and parenting time endlessly. So when I became a family lawyer, I got aware of this high conflict family dynamic. And I said to myself, “This isn't families that are high conflict, this is individual.” Some families have one, some families have two. And so I said, we need to talk about high conflict personalities rather than families. So we don't blame like a victim of domestic violence as being a high conflict family, the perpetrator of the domestic violence is acting in high conflict ways, but not the victim, not the children.

So I would say I really made “high conflict personality” a mainstream term, but I didn't create the high conflict adjective or definition, that was already in family law. And I coined using initials “HCP”; that came from me, and people talk about HCPs now. But I don't get credit for the concept of high conflict, which was already there.

Now your question was how to identify a high conflict person. So what I have learned over the years is to really whittle it down to four key characteristics. First of all, the person is preoccupied with blaming others. It's not like “My part in this problem is 40% or 20%,” — “My part is zero, and the other person, it's all their fault, 100%.”

Mike: Is that hence the name of your podcast, It's All Your Fault?

Bill Eddy: Yes, and a book also, with that title, It's All Your Fault, because that's what grabs you. You’re dealing with someone, and they may start pointing their finger and say, “It’s all your fault.” And you're thinking, “It isn’t.” In fact, it's mostly the person who's pointing their finger at you, but they can't see it in themselves. But looking at behavior, that's what high conflict personality, it's a behavioral characteristic. Blaming.

Second characteristic is all or nothing thinking. And that comes when there's looking at solutions as well as looking at problems. “It's my way or the highway, buddy.” The third is unmanaged emotions. Sometimes you can see those. And I've seen this in court where someone will run out of the courtroom in the middle of their own hearing, because their emotions are so overwhelming. Now, you don't always see them, so, but it's driving the person beneath the surface, and it takes them off track. They do things that sabotage themselves, they do things that are harmful to kids, because of these unmanaged emotions. They feel like they have to do things that they really shouldn't do.

Mike: Is another way of wording that—correct me if I'm wrong, is that just an impulse regulation control issue?

Bill Eddy: Yes, it’s the impulse control. So the fourth characteristic we see is extreme behavior. That high conflict person, it's not surprising, they do things that 90% of people would never do. Whether it's punching a hole in the wall, hiding children, and the worst-case domestic violence, all these extremes. Spreading rumors on the internet that they know are false. If you see, these are things 90% of people would never do, that's a good sign you may be dealing with a person with a pattern of high conflict behavior. But that overlaps with personality disorders. And so when I talk about high conflict personalities, I use this background knowledge of personality disorders in understanding what we're seeing like in family court.

Mike: I got to tell you, Bill, and I'm not making this up, when I was 17 or 18 years old, I punched a hole in the wall of my basement.

Bill Eddy: If you do it before you're an adult, you're okay.

Mike: Okay, well, we can talk about what the cutoff age is for when you become an adult. I haven't done it since 17. So I'm doing pretty good.

Bill Eddy: That's a good sign.

Mike: How do you differentiate, I'm curious, between transgenerational characteristics? We had Terry Real—you might know the name, he's a therapist—on our podcast. He talked a lot about transgenerational—"I saw it, no one corrected it, therefore I do it” versus what I believe you're talking about which is, no, this is ingrained in my persona, it's not a family issue.

Bill Eddy: Yes, and it depends. It's a higher incidence gets passed on in families, but it's not automatic. So for example, you may have three siblings, and one of your parents was a high conflict person. Say one of the four kids has that and the other three don't. I think there's an element that may be genetic tendencies, not certainties but tendencies. There's elements that get passed on by behavior.

So you have a family, let's say dad's favorite son, let's say dad's narcissistic, and his favorite son is taught to be narcissistic and self-centered, and the other kids are like, “We don't want to be part of that,” and are pretty reasonable. Now, what's interesting is, I had an associate lawyer in my office for a while who was just the nicest woman and friendly, everyone loved her. Her brother was in and out of prison, and her mother had some severe difficulties, so her brother seem to maybe have inherited those and she didn't. And they had the same child rearing practices. So part of it is learned, part of it is genetic.

Mike: I'm always fascinated with the families with three siblings where two turn out to have maladaptive adulthood and the one outlier is the grounded, stable one. Do they have a kind neighbor who took a—I don't know, hopefully you can write a book on that in the future.

Bill Eddy: Let me just say something about that. That kind neighbor may make all the difference in whether someone comes out as a more reasonable, flexible person. Or maybe it's Grandma, you never quite know. But one reasonable person that the child learns from can make all the difference in the world.

Mike: In one of your podcasts Bill, your host, Megan—

Bill Eddy: Yeah Megan Hunter, uh-huh?

Mike: And you have a website, and that's highconflictinstitute.com correct?

Bill Eddy: Yeah, that's us.

Mike: She  mentioned that, I found this so true. If you're self-aware, you're probably not high conflict, right? So the people who you know, obsess over—I mean, we're not celebrities in our firm but we have a pretty high internet profile, and we have people who latch onto us and obsess over us—and I find that the more obsessive they become, the less apt I could even say to them, “Hey, you're obsessing about us,” because they're just not going to ever hear that.

I see that person as having a really dramatic and difficult life ahead of them. If you're a high conflict person. I mean your life is just going to be filled with drama. What's a red flag, so you would know you're a high conflict person, and then be able to course correct?

Bill Eddy: There's two questions to ask yourself. The first is to ask yourself, “What's my part in this problem?” There's always problems everybody has. “What's my part in this?” High conflict people can't see their part, they can't reflect on themselves, they're not self-aware. This lack of self-awareness is key. The second question is, “What could I do differently?” In other words, what could I change in the way I'm behaving? Maybe it's with my partner, with my boss, my employee, my neighbor. “What could I do differently?” And if you can't ask yourself that question, and you can't ask yourself, “What's my part in this problem?” That's a characteristic, they lack self-awareness, and they lack change. They really stay the same, unless circumstances really get their attention. But you can't give them insight into themselves. And when you try, it often escalates their negative behavior. So it's very kind of paradoxical.

Mike: So to make sure I'm understanding this correctly, if I'm a high conflict person, not only can I not identify what I could do differently, I don't even want to ask myself ever that question, “What can I do differently?” Is that accurate?

Bill Eddy: Right. That's just totally off your radar. The only question is, how can I get what I want now, from this situation? And in many ways, it's emotion driven. They're busy figuring out what your weaknesses are and how they can manipulate those weaknesses. They have no awareness of their own and no interest in what their own weaknesses are.

Mike: It is oxymoronic, it reminds me of the expression, “We go to therapists for the people in our lives who don't go to therapy.”

Bill Eddy: Yes. Because these folks don't go to therapy voluntarily.

Mike: And that's a good segue to my last question. I know you teach a class at Pepperdine Law; I don't want you to be late, I know your dean. If you're in a relationship with a high conflict person, or if you're going to be a lawyer, let me tell you 10% of your clients are going to be high conflict people. So whether in your personal life or your professional life, what is the way out, what are the antidotes to dealing with someone who is high conflict? I'm 0 for 12 in responding online to people who are high conflict, I always regret it.

Bill Eddy: Yeah, we recommend a four-step process. This helps you kind of organize your thinking. It isn't necessarily steps, just four things, that we call the CARS method, C-A-R-S. And the first is Connecting. And this can be connecting with them, you're having a conversation, try to connect with them to calm them down. Maybe they're blaming you and you say, “Yeah, I can see how frustrated you are.” In other words, don't meet their anger and frustration with anger and frustration, meet it with empathy, attention, and just try to connect with them. And it could be very brief, could be 30 seconds or a minute.

And then Analyzing, that's the A, is analyzing our options. “What can we do now? I see how frustrated you are. Now let's look at what we can do now.”

The third is Responding to misinformation. High conflict people operate on a lot of misinformation. They have what we call cognitive distortion, all or nothing thinking. Emotional reasoning: it feels true so it must be true, even though it isn't. Jumping to conclusions: thinking that they can read your mind, “I know what you're thinking.” And that's wrong, wrong, wrong. No one knows what each other is thinking. So those cognitive distortions is responding to those with new information. We have a method we call the BIFF response. Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Just say what's the accurate information and do it briefly.

So that's the R, and then the S is Setting limits. You often have to set limits with high conflict people, because they don't restrain themselves. So you may have to say, “Okay, I need to end this conversation, I've got to be somewhere or do something.” And that way, you end the conversation that's not going to ever end if you’re not the one that stops it. Or “That thing you're doing, if you continue to do that, I can no longer support you. I'm going to have to withdraw whatever I'm doing that's helping you.”

So the Connecting, Analyzing, Responding, Setting limits. And that's in the book It's All Your Fault if people are interested in where they can get more on that.

Mike: I’m channeling Dr. Judson Brewer, who we had on our podcast—I think his response would be, because we interviewed him, has CARS been researched, and what's the data? Is there an efficacy behind it?

Bill Eddy: What we've done is we've learned it from experience, we teach it, we get a lot of anecdotal feedback, “It's helpful,” we just haven't pursued grants and funding. But the parts of it, I think, are pretty well established, like connecting with empathy. There's a lot of research on empathy, and how that helps calm people, analyzing choices. There's a lot of different methods. We find this has just been really effective but no I don't have the research.

Mike: For a final piece of advice as both a lawyer and a therapist, if you're struggling as a lawyer handling your clients, handling your cases, one of the ways you mentioned to turn to is your book.

Bill Eddy: 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life, but I also have one for lawyers, specifically, it's called High Conflict People in Legal Disputes. And it addresses the same five types of high conflict people, that's often a helpful place to go.

Mike: I'm just curious, one final, just really strong piece of parting wisdom. I'm sitting here drinking coffee and water during our Zoom and you're perfectly calm. What is your calming advice?

Bill Eddy: I think memorizing several calming statements. And I repeat these to myself before I head into an individual meeting with a client that may be difficult, or a mediation that may be high conflict, or even going into court. So here are some of these phrases. The first is, “’It's not about you. And their behavior, what they say, is about them not about you.” And that helps me not take it on. The second is, “I'm not responsible for their outcome.” And this is especially important for lawyers because you know, I used to wake up at 4:00 in the morning, two hours early, worrying about, “How can I make my client do this? How can I turn this around?” I realized I can only do my part and some high conflict clients will sabotage themselves, and I can't stop that. But I'll do my part to assist them. So I’m not responsible for their outcome. I am responsible to assist them according to lawyers’ standard of care, and then say, “It's up to you.” Clients want, you know, “I want this done yesterday,” and you say, you know, “I've got so many cases and I’ve got a hearing tomorrow; I've got this and this, so you have a dilemma. If you're working with me, you'll need to wait until Friday to get that. If you want to work with somebody else that can get things to you faster, that's up to you. It's up to you.” So these types of things.

Mike: All those three that you so adroitly identified, just reading them, I'm guessing they carry over to your personal life, too.

Bill Eddy: It makes it easier not to get into high conflict friendships and relationships. And many of us have family members, if you go far enough, you'll bump into this stuff. How close you are and how not close you are with this knowledge makes it easy to be stable with people. There are some people I'm stable with as a close person, and others I'm stable with as a more distant person, but I'm still there. It's learning to put this into balancing your life and how to be realistic about what other people are like. Some people just are going to be difficult, and you're not going to change them. So manage your relationship.

Mike: That's a great note to end on. I feel like after all these podcasts, I just want to book a therapy session with you, Bill. So thank you for being calm and an expert in what you do and all you put out there. Thank you, Bill.

Bill Eddy: Yeah!