Ask Judge Lynn Toler - December 2008

By Judge Lynn Toler
December 01, 2008

Are judges trained to recognize and deal appropriately with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The short answer is probably not, but that's not the whole story. Each state has its own judicial training courses and requirements, so I can only speak generally. But for the most part, in the beginning judicial training usually dealt exclusively with legal issues. These days, however, judges are increasingly trained to deal with difficult people, extreme personalities, and the mentally ill. While we have always done so, we now more readily bring our collective recourses to bear on these issues.

As for training with respect to any one specific disorder in the civil context, it's unlikely. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identifies hundreds of mental disorders of varying degrees and severity, many of which affect behavior both in an out of the judicial system. Judges must deal with manipulative and disordered people all of the time, regardless of the genesis of their behavior. Our job is not to diagnose but to make a legally and factually appropriate decision and do our best not to allow any party to abuse either the system or the other side in a dispute. Just like with any other profession, some of us are better at it than others. That is why training in this area is now more common, and I think the judicial system will be the better for it.

I have a family member who is an attorney, but not a matrimonial attorney. What would you think of his representing one party?

Lawyers, not unlike doctors, specialize for a reason. Different areas of law have their own intricacies, rules, and peculiarities. And while a non-matrimonial lawyer would understand the legalities of divorce better than a layman, there is always a risk when a professional practices outside their own specialty. When you don't practice regularly in a certain specialty, sometimes you don't know how much it is you don't know. Moreover, while using a family member can be less expensive (or even free), there is something to be said for the objectivity and accountability that comes with employing someone whom you won't run into at Thanksgiving dinner.

My sister is a neurologist (brain doctor). She is smart, and she loves me, but there is no way I'd let her give me liposuction. Even if I asked her to, she wouldn't do it because she has had no experience with it. Likewise, I would not structure a corporate buyout for her. Nor would I represent her in a medical malpractice suit. I wouldn't do the former because I don't know anything about it. And though I am capable of doing the latter (I used to defend doctors in medical malpractice cases early in my legal career), I'd be too emotionally involved to be objective, and I might mess it up.

Of course, there is no right answer to this question. Not being fully apprised of anyone's personal circumstances, the best I can do is alert you to the pitfalls. Good luck.

Judge Lynn Toler, a graduate of Harvard and The University of Pennsylvania Law School, served as a municipal court judge for eight years. She presides over the courtroom on the nationally syndicated television show Divorce Court and is the author of the book My Mother's Rules, a guide to greater emotional control.

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December 01, 2008
Categories:  Legal Issues|FAQs

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