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5 Boundaries I Set in My Law Firm to Protect My Peace

There’s a lot of talk about boundaries these days, and for good reason. Most of us aren’t great at setting them. Some folks aren’t very good at respecting them. One of the reasons I think we struggle with boundaries is that they can be hard to define. Nedra Glover Tawwab, the author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace defines boundaries as “a statement or action you communicate to someone to feel safe, secure, and supported in a relationship.” Brene Brown simplifies it even more: “It’s stating what’s ok and what’s not ok.” I appreciate Brene’s definition because, as she says, we often associate boundaries with only what can’t be done. It’s important to also share what is acceptable to help others know what to do instead of only being told “no”.

While we might associate boundaries with our personal relationships, they are vital to the success of our professional ones too. Whether it’s with colleagues or clients, setting boundaries in your law firm will help set you up for success. Here are five boundaries I hold in my law firm to protect my productivity and well-being.

Clients can expect a prompt response but only during work hours

Not allowing my work to take over my life has been a conscious and deliberate decision since I started my firm. I refused to work so many hours a week that I never see my family or have time to myself. Except for the occasional emergency or big project, I fiercely hold the boundary of only working during my designated work time. I tell clients from the beginning that they can reach out whenever works for them and I will respond by the next business day. Then I share my normal business hours and let them know to not expect a response outside that time. (For those curious, my current work hours are Monday through Thursday from about 10 am – 5 pm) 

If I’m honest, of all the boundaries I’ve implemented in my firm, this one has been the hardest to uphold. It’s not because of my clients. So far, I have not had a single client disregard my established boundary around work hours (other lawyers are a different story). Instead, the pushback has been self-inflicted. Looking at the traditional narrative that so many colleagues follow because I am not available 24/7, I often felt like I wasn’t a “good” lawyer. After unpacking that narrative, I was able to rewrite the definition for myself. Once I did (and realized the world doesn’t end if I don’t respond immediately), I was able to better serve my clients and protect my peace.

I support clients through their legal issues but I am not their therapist or secretary

We wear many hats as lawyers. While having different roles can make the job exciting, it can also lead to stress and overwhelm when we’re asked to take on roles we aren’t qualified for. Many of us have been in a situation where our clients begin to use us as a sounding board, seeking therapeutic services or advice. While I always try to be empathic and understanding of what they are going through, when I feel like what they need is a therapist or other mental health professional, I like to use the line: “That sounds very challenging. I would love to help, but that sounds like something that should be handled with a professional.”

One of the more subtle ways this blurring of roles has shown up in my practice is when the parties use their lawyers to communicate instead of communicating with each other. I find it happens most commonly in cases between parents. In my experience, many lawyers seem to encourage this behavior because it makes them more money, so I can’t totally blame the parties. However, when it happens in my cases, I am quick to set a boundary. It is my belief that at some point the lawyers should no longer be involved in the lives of these parties and they will have to communicate on their own. Why not build up that muscle now? That’s why when the other lawyer calls me to ask, “Would your client be agreeable to Dad picking up Billy from school today instead of Mom?”, my response is, “Please have Dad ask Mom directly”. If the parties try to work it out and need help, then get the lawyers involved to find a solution. To expect that I will be my client’s secretary or the one to solve each and every non-legal problem is not a boundary I am willing to let clients cross.

I offer payment options, but I am not a bank

I’ve had to learn this boundary the hard way. Luckily, I only let it get crossed a couple of times before I committed to upholding it. From day one, I built a law firm that I could be a client of and that meant having predictable, transparent, and affordable pricing. Even so, I would occasionally talk with a potential client who really tugged at my heartstrings. They were often dealt an unfair hand and were trying their best to turn the ship around. Instead of holding to my boundary of offering payment options that ensured the fee was collected before the work was performed, I would overextend myself and essentially become a lender. As nice and appreciative as the client was, ultimately payment was never made. 

As I said, it only took a couple of times for this to happen for me to realize it was not worth it. Since then, no matter how much my bleeding heart wants to help, I hold my boundary and offer different levels of service and payment options, but never one where I am extending them what is essentially a loan that may not be paid back. 

I appreciate new opportunities but only accept ones that align with my vision 

Whether it’s a new type of case or client for the firm or an opportunity to participate in an event as a speaker or sponsor, I am picky about the new opportunities I accept. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate every one of them and am grateful to have the choice. It doesn’t mean, however, I will accept if the opportunity doesn’t align with my vision. If it’s a new type of client but one that doesn’t fit into my practice model because, say, their case involves contested litigation, as much as I would love to add to the bottom line of revenue, I have to turn them away. I know that using my effort and resources to serve them means I am taking those resources away from someone else who is more aligned with the type of practice I want. The same goes for marketing opportunities like speaking at events. I look closely at whether it aligns with my vision of helping other lawyers build practices they love. If it doesn’t, I have to politely decline. 

I don’t participate in the narrative that it’s OK for lawyers to be jerks

I don’t know if you have this experience, but when people find out I’m an attorney, they immediately want to tell me a lawyer joke. While I typically politely smile (and sometimes chuckle when they are witty), I never really like them. The fact that we have an entire category of jokes about how terrible lawyers are is harmful to the profession. It plays into this narrative that lawyers are of a particular breed of bottom feeders or sharks or soul-less monsters or whatever other negative characterization you’ve heard. While I recognize there are lawyers who perpetuate this negative view of the profession, it’s an example of the minority creating the narrative for the whole. 

Personally, I would not be a member of the legal profession if that’s really what it was like. If the expectation was that you only looked out for yourself and made money at anyone’s expense. That doesn’t align with my personal values. I became a lawyer to help people through the most difficult times of their lives – not to use their pain to make money or as an opportunity to feed my ego by aggressively fighting with colleagues to show who has the bigger you-know-what. So when someone tells me a lawyer joke, I don’t engage. Instead, I talk about the good work that many lawyers are doing to lift people up from their lowest points and give them hope on their darkest days. It may not be a boundary you’d expect me to hold as a member of the profession, but it’s an important one to me. 

Boundaries are much easier written about than performed. While it might sound like it’s easy for me to hold strong on all of these boundaries all the time, please understand that it’s not. There are still moments I struggle and times when I don’t listen to my own advice. There has never been a time, however, when I have held a boundary and regretted it. Identifying and holding to these boundaries has helped me build a practice I enjoy and protected my overall peace and mental health. If you want more ways to build a practice that optimizes growth and enjoyment, subscribe to our newsletter. You’ll get practical resources each month that you can immediately implement and will help you build a practice you love.