Taken from Tina’s book, “Divorcing a Narcissist: Advice from the Battlefield“
Finding an attorney
“Why can’t you both just get along for the sake of the children?” Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to anyone who is divorcing someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). While divorce can bring out the worst in a healthy person, a divorce involving someone with NPD is like inviting the devil himself onto the battlefield. The narcissist appears to be charming, charismatic and endearing to those whom he encounters during the legal process, yet outside of the courtroom, he is calculated, manipulative and many times, downright dangerous. The untrained observer may perceive the situation to be about two immature parents who are not capable of putting their children first.
Sadly, many of the untrained observers are the very people who work in the court system such as Judges, commissioners and attorneys. A narcissist is like the modern-day version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I once tried to explain to the Judge in my own divorce case that I didn’t know the man sitting 5 feet to my right. The man sitting next to me in the courtroom was not the same man whom I was attempting to co-parent with. This man claimed to love his children and stated that he wanted to spend time with them however, his actions did not match his words.
Because most courtrooms filter people in and out like cattle, it is imperative that you have an attorney who understands Narcissistic Personality Disorder and will work diligently to protect you and your children in a variety of ways. Having an attorney who understands NPD will ensure a strong parenting plan and court orders with zero room for manipulation or wiggle room. Dealing with an attorney who isn’t educated on personality disorders is an extra battle that you will not have the energy to fight. High conflict divorces are difficult enough without the added task of educating your attorney.
While I represented myself in my divorce from 2009 through 2013, I interviewed many attorneys with hopes of finding someone to take my case pro bono. One of the first things that I quickly discovered is that pro bono work is simply unheard of in family law and you have better odds of finding a needle in a haystack. Attorneys know that divorce cases, and especially high conflict divorces, can drag out for years and result in monthly, or weekly, court dates.
I met an attorney named Mr. Morrow in 2010 who really seemed to “get it” but unfortunately, it was before I understood or had a label for what was happening to me. While my therapist had labeled Seth a narcissist, I didn’t know that my divorce was a cookie-cutter example taken straight out of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder playbook. When I met with Mr. Morrow, I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and found myself unable to articulate what was happening. It was emotionally exhausting and, honestly, it was embarrassing to admit that these things were happening to me. I worried that he would think I was as crazy as Seth.
While Mr. Morrow and his wife, who was his paralegal, seemed to believe in me and wanted to help me, they simply couldn’t get sucked into the drama of my case. After our first meeting, Mr. Morrow agreed to assist me with my legal paperwork and he offered to meet with me to prepare for each court date. As promised, Mr. Morrow and his wife guided me through the forms and helped me to navigate the Family Court System. Within weeks of discovering that I had a legal team guiding me, Seth began to harass Mr. Morrow’s office to warn him that I would try to sleep with him along with other various and sundry narcissistic ramblings. I was humiliated as Mr. Morrow and his wife had begun to feel like parental figures to me. I felt like Seth was tainting the goodness of these human angels who had tirelessly helped me. Out of embarrassment, I put my tail between my legs and stopped contacting Mr. Morrow’s office as I wanted to protect them from the twilight zone that had become my life.
After that experience, I stopped trying to find an attorney and devoted my time to learning the system and the court requirements. I read everything that I could get my hands on and connected with other single mothers who were fighting similar battles. Going into court in pro se was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but even more so during the times that Seth hired counsel to represent him. He would retain an attorney when he was facing serious issues or consequences; however, he was usually dropped by the attorney within months of hiring them. Some attorneys dropped Seth because of failure to pay his legal bills and others, I assume, dropped him because he refuses to follow orders.
In my personal opinion, and based on many articles that I have read, attorneys have a very high rate of Narcissistic Personality Disorder which is why I believe that they have such a difficult time recognizing narcissism in the court room. Attorneys with high levels of narcissism have a hard time seeing the behavior as problematic when the issues so closely represent who they are as people. This is not to say that all attorneys are narcissistic by any means. Along this journey, I have made friends with several attorneys who are bright, shining lights in the Family Court System and they give me hope that there are changes on the horizon.
If I were interviewing a prospective attorney, I would be very straightforward and direct. I would ask them to describe their personal experience working with individuals who either suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or with individuals who have high narcissistic traits. That question offers a lead-in and one can quickly gauge whether or not the attorney knows enough to properly represent you. I would ask for examples of situations or cases that fall into the high conflict category and specifically, how these were handled. Any attorney who seems annoyed or put off by your questions is not the attorney that you want on your side.
Advice from the Battlefield:
1. Ask the prospective attorney the following questions:
- Define a “High Conflict” divorce.
- Have you discovered a link between the HCD (High Conflict Divorce) and personality disorders?
- Have you ever won a case arguing “Emotional/Psychological Abuse”?
- Define Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
- Do you work closely with psychologists/therapists and/or evaluators who are experienced in NPD?
2. The biggest issue is finding out which attorneys you should interview, but once you are at that point ask, “What are your views about high conflict divorces?” Listen to how they respond and if they assume the conflict is shared, ask, “Under what circumstances are both parties not equally responsible for a high conflict divorce?” At this point you should know whether it is worth sticking around for more questions. My next one: “How are you able to help the Judge realize that psychopathology and intentional behavior in one party can be solely responsible for maintaining high conflict divorce?”
3. Ask around first, and use word of mouth recommendations. I was lucky as I used the law firm I used to work for many years ago. I knew their family lawyers were worth their salt. I was given one attorney temporarily before I got the one that saw my case through. The temporary one seemed to be less organized and ended up going away on holidays when my first hearing was due. I didn’t like how she seemed dismissive of my case and spoke to a partner of the firm who in turn recommended the woman who took over my case. She was very thorough. I explained to her what I wanted and what the situation was and she attacked it head on. She in turn recommended my barrister who was also very proactive. Don’t settle for someone who is dismissive of you and doesn’t take the time to view the full picture.
4. Ask around for recommendations and the referring party to qualify their recommendation. Get a lawyer who’s quick out of the gate. Find someone who enjoys litigation and has been in the field for many years. Find someone who’ll advise you with the truth, not what you want to hear. I had a list of questions to ask my lawyer when we first met. I asked mine point blank if she’d come up against a narcissist before. I knew from her answer she certainly had. I had a very nice “everyone get along” mediator-style lawyer at first and although I liked her, she fell down quickly in court. Your lawyer is your voice. Don’t settle for just anyone.
5. At the beginning of my divorce, my ex-husband consulted with the top attorneys in our county which left me unable to find decent representation. Even though he didn’t actually hire them, it was a conflict of interest and it was difficult to find someone to represent me. This is a common (and dirty) trick that everyone should be aware of when starting this process. I was left with the bottom feeder attorneys to choose from and to date, I have been through five attorneys. First, I would ensure that your attorney is familiar with the Judge assigned to your case and I would directly ask him/her what other local attorneys would say about them from a professional standpoint. Ask around, read Yelp reviews on local law firms and, if you have the opportunity, sit in the courtroom to which you are assigned. Watch different attorneys and critique how they present in the courtroom and whether or not they have a good rapport with the actual Judge. When you’ve narrowed down your selection, ask them point-blank to describe Narcissistic Personality Disorder and furthermore, how it relates to high conflict divorces. In my opinion, this is one of the most critical topics when starting the divorce process with a narcissist. The decision that you make on your attorney could make or break your case. You are choosing an advocate to represent the best interest of your children. Choose wisely.
NOTE FROM TINA: People often ask for attorney referrals and to date, there are only three attorneys that I’ve encountered that I feel 100% comfortable referencing. Two happen to be in Southern California and the third in Florida:
- The Law Office of Chelsea Storey (Orange County, California)
- The Law Offices of Melissa B. Buchman (Los Angeles, California)
- Yolanda L. Fox (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
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