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Virtual Litigation May Unravel The Narcissistic Lawyer

April 7, 2021

Narcissists in courtroom settings are often incredibly charismatic, charming and convincing. This is because narcissists survive on narcissistic supply.

Narcissistic supply is a form of psychological addiction and dependency, where the narcissist requires — and demands — constant adoration, special treatment, validation and appeasement in order to reinforce their sense of importance and feel good about themselves.

In depositions or courtroom appearances, narcissists often attempt to extract narcissistic supply by glaring at the witness and/or opposing counsel or by making remarks or gestures while off the record.

But what happens to a narcissistic lawyer when his or her only stage is a virtual one? With the inability to intimidate and generate narcissistic supply, the narcissist may unravel and show their true colors, losing not only their credibility with the court, but possibly their client. Could starving the narcissistic lawyer of their favorite source of narcissistic supply provide an unexpected benefit of a global pandemic?

What Is Narcissism?

"Narcissism" is a buzzword commonly understood to be a socially derogatory description of personality traits consistent with arrogance and egotism. "It is those things, but in fact, it's a disorder of self-esteem," according to psychologist Ramani Durvasula.[1] Interestingly, narcissists often look like the most confident person in the room, when in reality, they are anything but.[2]

Core traits of narcissism are lack of empathy, grandiosity, entitlement, and the chronic need for admiration and validation from others. Those traits, coupled with the inability to regulate self-esteem, create narcissism, which can be viewed as a disorder of attachment in that narcissists lack the ability to make deep, intimate, connected ties to another human being.[3]

A leading author on narcissistic personality disorder, Sam Vaknin, offered the following advice regarding how to deal with a narcissist in a 1999 WebMD panel:

Accommodate them, flatter them, adore them, admire them or get out of their way — and fast. They are vindictive. They are aggressive. They are emotionless. In short: They can be dangerous to your health.[4]

Given their insatiable need for admiration, a narcissist manages to take their eyes off themselves just long enough to find out if others are looking.[5] And if the narcissist has admirers, it temporarily boosts their self-esteem.

Narcissistic supply is a psychoanalytical concept first introduced by Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel in order to describe a type of admiration, interpersonal support or sustenance drawn by an individual from their environment that becomes essential to their self-esteem.[6]

For the narcissistic lawyer, a courtroom can serve as the ultimate source of narcissistic supply. In a 2020 article regarding virtual trials, law professors Susan Bandes and Neal Feigenson noted:

The tropes of the courtroom as a stage and the trial as theater are well worn and sometimes criticized but nevertheless valid and pertinent here. "Drama and trial are allies .... [In each,] the politics of staging, visualizing, and demonstrating [take center stage]. [T]he right behavior is precisely the art of acting well in the eyes of the subjects watching the performance." The display of demeanor and emotion in court are part of an essential theatrical representation of the events in dispute, imposing on each witness, litigant, and lawyer (and possibly judge) the demand to "act well" in the eyes of the audience.[7]

The Virtual Courtroom, and a Narcissist Without Supply

Can a narcissistic lawyer obtain supply when their favorite stage has transitioned to a computer screen?

As we are aware, federal and state court systems across the country have significantly altered their operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many courts initially limited proceedings to only the most essential and urgent matters, such as arraignments and restraining order hearings.

While most jurisdictions are beginning to resume at least some of their normal operations, courts are still striving to conduct as many proceedings remotely as possible. Jury trials are suspended or limited in some locations, although most states at least have planned strategies for resuming them.[8]

In Texas, state courts are encouraged to use reasonable efforts to conduct proceedings remotely, and any Texas court can modify or suspend deadlines and procedures until June 1, 2021, with limited exceptions.[9]

In a virtual setting, instead of being able to pace in front of a jury wearing a flashy suit while giving an opening argument or turning their body away from opposing counsel or a witness, the narcissistic lawyer is confined to a piece of the computer screen much like a player on "Hollywood Squares."

Although it may be too soon to predict how being on Zoom instead of in a physical courtroom will affect participants' understanding of others' emotional displays — or their absence — some believe virtual court proceedings could inhibit emotional expression and fail to provide access to nonverbal communications.[10]

Additionally, there appears to be a general appreciation of the value of being able to observe witnesses' demeanor; to see and react to facial expressions and other nonverbal communications; to know that hesitation in formulating an answer may be caused by witness discomfort rather than a streaming delay.[11]

Moreover, the factors that make Zoom tough can also create a challenge for virtual jurors and others to focus on and absorb information for an extended period of time.[12] Zoom fatigue is a specific type of exhaustion that occurs in response to increased videoconferencing.

For example, engaging in Zoom meetings forces participants to sustain direct eye contact, often with complete strangers, and forces participants to not only send and receive an abundance of nonverbal cues, but decipher which they are actually supposed to respond to. Participants are also forced to remain in one spot for the duration of the videoconference and are required to look at themselves for the duration of the day, potentially preoccupying or worrying themselves with appearance.

With the inability to generate narcissistic supply by traditional means in the courtroom, the narcissist may turn to other attention-seeking behaviors, because even negative attention can provide the supply so desperately needed by a narcissist. To that end, judges have reported lawyers drinking and smoking cigars during hearings or appearing half-dressed in bed or while visiting a hair salon.

Last year, then-Judge Dennis Bailey of Florida's 17th Judicial Circuit Court made the plea in a letter published through the Weston Bar Association, requesting:

The judges would appreciate it if the lawyers and their clients keep in mind these Zoom hearings are just that: hearings. They are not casual phone conversations. It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera. We've seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc.

Judge Bailey complained that one male attorney appeared shirtless during a Zoom hearing, while a female lawyer was on camera while in bed "still under the covers."

"And putting on a beach cover-up won't cover up [that] you're poolside in a bathing suit," Bailey wrote. "So, please, if you don't mind, let's treat court hearings as court hearings, whether Zooming or not."[13]

Addressing the Virtual Narcissist

Because narcissistic people view themselves as uniquely gifted and entitled, they do not possess healthy boundaries, nor do they like it when others set limits against their intrusions. Thus, establishing solid limits and boundaries in a virtual setting is essential.

For example, New York state courts enacted "Virtual Bench Trial Protocols and Procedures," which includes the following regarding virtual bench trial decorum:

All participants shall recognize that a Virtual Bench Trial is a formal proceeding. Thus, all evidentiary rules and principles that guide In-Person Courtroom Trials remain applicable. Of equal importance are the disciplinary rules and requirements of civility amongst lawyers and litigants alike. Judges' Part Rules and procedures regarding the conduct of an In-Person Courtroom Trial should be followed to the extent practicable. All participants are to have proper attire, there should be no consumption of food or drink or smoking during the proceedings. [14]

Judges have also explored whether those who misbehave by yelling at judges during a virtual hearing could be muted.[15] Additionally, if the narcissistic lawyer is grandstanding or intimidating a witness, lowering the volume, minimizing the window or switching the virtual display from speaker view to gallery view could relegate the narcissistic lawyer from king, queen, dictator or star of the show and level the virtual playing field.

Another way to combat narcissism in the legal community is to create a courtroom culture where kindness and compassion are regarded and admired over bulldog behavior and cut-throat litigation tactics.

And although an introductory statement by a judge at the beginning of a virtual hearing or trial regarding expectations of decorum is unlikely to completely stop the narcissistic lawyer in his or her tracks, it will highlight the narcissist's inability to comply with those expectations and boundaries and diminishing the narcissist in the eyes of the client and the jury.

Without attention (or supply) in the form of intimidating witnesses, boasting to clients or associates, or grandstanding in front of a jury, a narcissistic lawyer may then withdraw into what Vaknin calls "narcissistic hibernation."[16]

And although the pandemic is likely to end at some point, many opine that some aspects of virtual litigation are here to stay, such as mediations, initial appearances and discovery hearings. Thus, the narcissistic lawyer may gradually become starved of his or her favorite form of narcissistic supply, and the legal system may just become a better place because of it.

Jennifer L. Gibbs is a partner at Zelle LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its​​ or their respective affiliates. This article is for general info​​rmation p​​urposes an​​d is ​​not intended to be and​​ should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[5] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[6] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[7] Susan A. Bandes, Neal Feigenson, Virtual Trials: Necessity, Invention, and the Evolution of the Courtroom, 68 Buff. L. Rev. 1275, 1326–27 (2020) (citing Cornelia Vismann, “Rejouer les crimes" Theater vs. Video, 13 CARDOZO STUD. L. & LITERATURE119, 127-28 (2001)).

[8] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[9] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[10] Id.

[11] Jana Friedman & T. Ray Guy, Litigation Post-Pandemic: The View from Corporate Legal Departments, 94 The Advoc. (Texas) 17, 18 (2021).

[12] (last visited March 29, 2021).

[13] (last visited March 30, 2021).


[15] (last visited April 5, 2021).

[16] (last visited March 30, 2021).

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