Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Are Spiteful Clients Good For Your Practice?

Are spiteful clients good for your practice?We are told to avoid clients who are motivated by spite.

They are bad news. Perhaps even dangerous. Even if things are fine and dandy at the beginning of their case, just wait: the minute things go south their wrath will be redirected our way.

Better to represent clients with good old-fashioned motivations like greed or fear.

But now comes new research that suggests a little spite might just be all right.

A study from Tufts University showed that when spiteful players were included in a game-playing experiment, the rate of fair outcomes actually increased. It turns out that stingy, ill-willed subjects helped keep the game honest. They held fast, acting as a sort of buffer against those who were more pliable.

This is not to say that spiteful people are necessarily more virtuous than big-hearted folks. Nor are they more pleasant. It merely suggests that when it comes to getting results, spite sometimes pays off.

“[A]fter decades of focusing on such staples of bad behavior as aggressiveness, selfishness, narcissism and greed, scientists have turned their attention to the subtler and often unsettling theme of spite — the urge to punish, hurt, humiliate or harass another, even when one gains no obvious benefit and may well pay a cost,” says New York Times science writer Natalie Angier. “The new research on spite transcends older notions that we are savage, selfish brutes at heart, as well as more recent suggestions that humans are inherently affiliative creatures yearning to love and connect. Instead, it concludes that vice and virtue, like the two sides of a V, may be inextricably linked.”

Where Do You Rank on the Spitefulness Scale?

Everybody has a little spite in them. But it appears some of us have more of it than others.

The journal Psychological Assessment recently published a “spitefulness scale.” Researchers ranked people on a 17-point spite spectrum based on their responses to questions like: “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her,” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community.”

Here were some of the findings:

  • Men were generally more spiteful than women.
  • Young adults were more spiteful than older adults.
  • Spiteful people scored high for traits like callousness, Machiavellianism and poor self-esteem.
  • Spitefulness was low in people who were agreeable, conscientious and had a tendency to feel guilt.

Spite and Mediation

Few places offer a better showcase for spite than the mediation room.

In a divorce case, one party might be perfectly willing to inflict suffering on the other party – or even the children – in order to “win.” In business litigation, a partner might rather see the company fail than have to divvy up the assets with a hated rival.

“[W]hat do these new studies teach us about dealing with the spiteful litigant?” asks mediator and blawger Bruce Friedman. “We must appeal to fairness, acknowledging the feeling and drawing it out. Perhaps pointing out that these same spiteful feelings are shared in the other caucus room. Ultimately, we must ask the spiteful litigant what they would regard as a fair resolution. We must point out the obvious that both parties must agree in order for there to be a settlement.”

Obviously this is all a matter of degree. A client – or a friend, relative or neighbor, for that matter – who acts solely or consistently out of spite is someone to be avoided.

On the other hand, a touch of spite might not be the worst thing in the world. It might, in fact, be the reason clients seek you out in the first place. And it might be the reason they pay their bills on time. Which makes up for the other, less pleasant side of the V.


Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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