Disarming the Narcissist – Case Study 2: The Narcissist’s Asshole Attorney

“I’ll take a reasonable lawyer with a crazy client over a crazy lawyer with a reasonable client any day.”

These words of wisdom were uttered over coffee one midtown afternoon by my friend C. She was relaying HER attorney’s advice, as I was pouring my heart out over the nonsensical, twilight zone custody case I was embroiled in with my Narcissist ex.

Newsflash: It’s NOT About the Kid

It took me a year and a half and $50K in legal fees to figure this out. The crazy thing is, the Narc and I don’t disagree on a lot of parenting principles, even in the course of settlement discussions. I’d say we fight about as much as most married people do over child-related decisions, maybe even less. The difference between us and the other fighting parents is that he needs to file a motion and howl at the judge about what a terrible person I am whenever we disagree or I evade his attempt to use the kid as a creepy excuse to hang around me. Why? Well, he was raised in an Arabic Muslim household for one thing. And there he was abused by his stepmother, and subsequently developed a personality disorder. I was his property, and once I left the house I was out of his control. So custody of our daughter was the way he was going to punish me for my disobedience.

Yes, he is a total piece of work. But his attorney was far, far worse. Because this guy had a license to practice law, the ability to translate my exes creepy requests into plausible-sounding demands, and no skin in the game – except that he could make more money, the more he stirred up our conflict. I realized that the business of being an attorney was not unlike the business of being a web developer. The newbies short on work will attempt to sell the client on a lot of BS they don’t need so they can inflate the billable hours. And those of us that know what we’re doing and get more work than we really want — we’re just trying to get you and your project out of our hair while minimizing the amount of ongoing maintenance it will need (aka, “keep it simple, stupid”). The $200-300/hr lawyer will make mistakes, stir up conflict, and drive your case to trial. The $500-700/hr lawyer will push you towards a deal and save you thousands in misery. The catch is, you don’t get to choose both lawyers in this sticky foursome. I had the high-priced, googleable attorney who took the high road and looked for mechanisms to avoid conflict, while he had a younger, more aggressive attorney that seemed desperate to prove something — what, who knows. An attorney whose ill-fitting suits never matched, whose office was at WeWork, and whose personal assistant was (wait for it…) his MOTHER. When push came to shove my attorney did pull some very good moves, and her advice was filled with insightful observations about human nature and conflict. But in many ways I felt like yet another proof of the old adage that nice guys finish last, and she too would at times be blindsided by the sudden 180 the other side would do after we’d made headway in negotiations. You need an attorney that has enough clientele that she’s not interested in billing you up the wazoo (which means she IS the sort that negotiates to keep you OUT of court — these are highly sought after), AND who can spot the kind of opposition that wants to prolong the fight. And when she does see it, she must ruthlessly push for the exposure and high costs of a trial.

Not only was this Narc attorney clearly out to line his pockets with our separation, but he would look at me like a hungry wolf during settlement talks. Sometimes before court, if I wasn’t with my attorney in the waiting area, he would sit next to me on the bench and lean in so I could smell his cologne while he whispered threats of a trial that would drain me of twice as much money as I’d already spent if I didn’t comply with their demands. Later on, when I had run out of savings and was self-representing, he invited me to do a “settlement talk” without his client (my ex) present, adding that because I was self-representing, it would be like a counsel-to-counsel meeting. Ahem, why the fuck would I discuss parenting my kid WITHOUT the other parent present?

It was like two slimy men out there in the world had joined forces to demand that I fuck them, and if I didn’t, they were going to drive me into bankruptcy and take my daughter away. What. The. Fuck.

I thought about taking him up on his offer, recording the meeting and seeing if I could document some misconduct that would force him off the case. But the risk and the physical proximity was too daunting. I was frightened and fragile around lawyers and judges at the time. 5 years on, I now swagger into court unrepresented, give security a wink and line up my exhibits like post-its on a SCRUM board. But it takes a lot of time and terror to get to that point, because most of us have never had our heads FUCKED with like this before.

Have you read Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle? Not yet? If you are facing a similar battle, you must, and it will make sense of the senseless. In the thick of it I booked Tina Swithin for an hour-long advice session over the phone and she is wonderful. She understands not just the ridiculousness of the Courts, but how it feels to discover that the person you fell in love with never existed, while the person in their place is now out for your blood.

During that period I thought about suicide seriously for the first time in many years. I was so terrified of men that I was celibate for the first two years of court appearances. My therapist suggested I might have a touch of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). The suicidal aspect of being Stalked by Way of the Courts is a real catch-22 when there are kids involved. Louis CK has a bit about how you CAN’T die when you have a kid. Every time I’d think about ordering some sleeping pills and booking a high colonic so that no one would be tasked with tidying up my shit-soiled corpse once they found it, I’d start thinking about her and how bloody awful it would be once I was gone. How she’d turn out to be a lazy, uneducated piece of ghetto trash with emotional issues just like her father, instead of the brilliant, kind, and self-aware force to be reckoned with that I see blooming in her every day.

Friends In Low Places

One day about 3 years into the case, I met up with a friend who “knows people,” to discuss a request.

“I want someone to break his jaw.”

“Whose, your exes?”

“No, his attorney’s”

[Chuckles] “Why do you want to break his jaw?”

“Because I’m sick of hearing him fucking talk.”

He laughed again and we volleyed details about how and where it would happen and who would do it. He explained to me that the guy’s mouth would be wired shut for a month and he’d have to eat through a straw while it healed. And he questioned what in the end, it was going to get me. What was it I ultimately wanted? I told him I wanted them to leave me alone. Settle the custody case. Stop filing motions and springing surprises. Stop moving the goalposts every time I agree to something. Stop using the kid as a means to blackmail me into contact with my ex via doctor’s appointments and birthday parties. My friend thought about it some more and sipped his beer, before dispensing his thoughts, with Brando-like nonchalance.

“Get at his money instead. Find out where he gets his money.”

His Money = His Fuel

I went to work, and easily discovered a wealth of personal data in the dovetail between public databases and social media. From e-courts, I already knew the asswipe was only working on three cases – which is not many, if you think about how many months typically pass between scheduled appearances. I found the address of the lovely $1.4M Brooklyn co-op where he resides with his family. Looks like they put down a hefty downpayment on it too, and I wondered who shelled that out. I found out the names of family members. I found out where he went to college and where his kids went to school. I found out that his annual registration with the Chief Administrator of the Courts had lapsed. I found out his wife was a staff lawyer at a prestigious midtown law firm where she drafted hedge fund contracts – which meant she was probably clocking in around $200K per year. I found their wedding photos, baby photos of their kids, and her corporate headshot. She’d gained a lot of weight since the wedding. Her facebook photo was a grimace contorted into a smile, clutching a toddler under each arm. I’ve made that same grimace many times.

My heart sank for this hardworking woman, married to a belligerent, narcissistic underachiever who made inappropriate advances towards his clients’ exes. The poor thing needed him out of her hair as much as I did.

So I bought another copy of Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle, wrapped it in heavyweight paper with rubber-gloved hands, and had it sent to her office. I put a local bookstore as the return address.

Shit Gets Real

Some months passed before our next meeting. The AFC (Attorney for Child) had invited us and our counsel to do a settlement talk at her office. I liked her for the most part. She seemed no nonsense, and very interested in getting down to business with a bulleted list of issues in an effort to, in her words “get our kid OUT of the Court system.” Unfortunately she also carried the assumption that both parents were equally at fault and just couldn’t get along [blah blah blah], though I sensed this start to sway as we moved through discussions. At times, his attorney and I had words. I vaguely referred to his habit of stirring up conflict. “Why would I do that?” he asked, adding slyly, “Oh wait, I know — because I’m a NARCISSIST.” He snorted and said “Send my wife another book.”

I did not react. I was looking at the AFC with a bored expression on my face. “So she got it,” I silently smiled to myself. I wondered what THAT dinner table conversation was like. And the settlement talk continued without further event or mention, as if he had made an offhand reference to a movie that no one there had seen or cared to know about.

Our next Court appearance was supposed to be the final one. But of course, the Narc’s attorney had more tricks up his sleeve. He liked to deliver documents with undiscussed and inaccurate changes minutes or hours before appearances before the judge, and tell me and my attorney take it or leave it. Or suddenly reverse a position settled out of court as an excuse to furiously request reopening an old motion. So of course, upon receipt of this draft we asked for more time to make some final handwritten changes… and then spent the next SEVEN HOURS on benches in the waiting area, trying desperately to hammer out an agreement. My ex and I were both bankrupt. He didn’t even know what he wanted anymore, and would look at me wide-eyed and helpless when I told him to ignore the fucking attorney for a minute and TELL me how he thought a paragraph in the stipulation should read so we could get through this and go home. His attorney dropped the same bomb again — “Send my wife another book.” I did not react. Not until later, when he finally brought it up heatedly and directly.

“Listen, I believe you sent my wife a book.”

I screwed up my face in exasperated confusion and exclaimed, “WHAT… are you TALKING ABOUT??”

And he let it go. Remember what I said about Narc’s being gullible?

Towards the end of the day, the attorneys were called into conference with the judge, presumably to be asked what the fuck was going on and why hadn’t they gotten their clients to settlement. My ex and I were at the far end of the waiting area, near the only windows when we heard someone shout something about slamming a door, before a scuffle. I looked over and so see some sharp movement around the court door involving my exes attorney. A security guard loudly muttered “fucking asshole.” My attorney came over, with alarm and distaste in her eyes to tell me that my exes attorney was coming unhinged, had slammed the courtroom door after a conference where both attorneys were reprimanded, and was subsequently called back for a tongue-lashing from the judge about courtroom decorum.

One of the bailiffs came over to talk to me and my ex. He had dreads and tattoos and a large teddy-bear-like quality. He offered us some gum and said he thought the attorneys might be trying to squeeze a little more money out of us, but he believed we could do this.

But by the time we got back into court it was 10 minutes before the closing. We had done it, more or less — we had a document, earmarked and scribbled, not more than 6 pages, that summed up our parenting agreements. His attorney stated that he thought it was improper to submit the document as is and that he would rather go back to his office to type it up. My ex and I begged to submit it. My exes attorney asked to be removed from the case. When the going gets tough, even Narcs get tired. The judge said he had accepted agreements that were entirely handwritten, adding that it was one of the strangest situations he’d ever seen in all his years on the bench. There wasn’t time to allocute it so we had to schedule a time that we should reappear with it executed and notarized.

In the nearly empty waiting area, all four of us gathered our things. My exes attorney shook his hand and said “Be well.” before walking off. I had to go pick up my daughter, so my attorney and my ex agreed to go to the closest Fedex and have the agreement scanned and circulated via email in order to freeze it in record. We could retype it ourselves, there was no need for an attorney to redraft.

So what was it that got him off the case in the end? Was it the book? Had I rattled him by planting the seeds of divorce in his sham marriage? Or was it my ex running out of money, leaving the guy working for free as the overdue balance crept up? Maybe by making contact with the guy’s wife, had I removed myself as a potential romantic interest, thus rendering the case fruitless in his eyes. I will never fucking know.

Epilogue

There are a lot of fucked up attorneys. Hey, it’s like any other profession. Most people just kind of suck at their jobs. The problem is the power that these people, total strangers, have over your LIFE. If your Narcissist ex has picked a Narcissist lawyer, you are in for a long and deeply disturbing ride. Within the system of lawyers and judges, there is very little recourse to call out misconduct. At one point during the case I filed a complaint with the Attorney Disciplinary Committee, citing specific examples after reading the New York Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys. Including exhibits it totaled 100 pages. I got a postcard back saying that because the case is pending, it was the jurisdiction of the Court to discipline counsel for misconduct. Cuz guess what. The Disciplinary Committee is made up of fucking lawyers, and they like to cover each other’s asses. I’ve noticed doctors do this too, and I’ll never understand it. I have NO problem calling bullshit on bad code when I see it. This admittedly does not always result in me being well-liked, but that’s not why they pay me the big bucks.

So what can you do when you encounter a shitty lawyer? Not much. If it’s a lawyer you hired you can sue them but uh, yeah, good luck with that. You can file a complaint with the Disciplinary Committee and hope that eventually the trail will lead to discipline. For less investment and greater effect (because the point is to protect others from hiring these douchebags) — leave them an honest and informative Google review.

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

–Louis Brandeis

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