Setting Boundaries: An Essential Skill for Lawyers

by Jennifer L. Gibbs
Originally Published in 
Law360
January 27, 2020

Lawyers’ mental health, substance abuse and personal well-being continue to be prevalent topics of discussion moving into the new year. One theory as to why lawyer well-being seems to be at an all-time low is that behavior directed toward lawyers is driven by the perception that lawyers are essentially commodities with on-demand availability.

“Lawyers are guilty of promising excellent results at any cost, and the ultra-competitive service profession with high billing rates seems to perpetuate this problem,” says attorney Patrick R. Krill, a leading authority on addiction, mental health and well-being in the legal profession.[1] Krill has recognized that lawyers, as a population, appear to lack effective boundary-setting skills, often seeing boundaries as some sort of restraint on their potential or a sign of weakness.

“In reality, they are neither, but lawyers need some convincing of that,” Krill says. When lawyers fail to establish healthy boundaries, the consequences have an impact upon anxieties, worries, feelings and emotions, thoughts, behaviors, bodies, relationships, stresses and overall health.[3]

Can lawyers alleviate some of the stress and resulting health problems plaguing our profession by implementing better boundaries?

What Are Boundaries?

A boundary is a limit you can set on what you will accept of another person’s words or actions.[4] Effective boundary setting (and enforcing of boundaries) can have a positive effect, not only on relationships, but also on self-esteem. Boundaries can be material, physical, mental or emotional.

Boundaries can be not only on what one will let in, but also on what we let out, e.g., how we interact with others and how we take care of ourselves — with the fundamental principle that we, and we alone, are responsible for our own well-being.[5]

Boundaries are often based on the fundamental law of reaping and sowing, or the law of cause and effect. People without established boundaries interrupt the law of reaping and sowing by stepping in and rescuing irresponsible people.[6]

Boundary work is also based on the idea that “I am responsible for me, and you are responsible for you.” Additionally, boundaries need to be made visible to others and communicated to them in a relationship. It is important to remember that boundaries exist and affect us whether we communicate them or not.[7]

Common Attorney Boundary Issues

It is important to be aware that any and all relationships can benefit or be harmed by a lack of personal boundaries — whether that relationship is between partner and associate or attorney and client.

Boundary setting is extremely important when dealing with new lawyers, who may not understand law firm culture and/or expectations within the firm regarding associates. Depending on the firm, “face time” can be extremely important, as well as the manner in which the associate presents him or herself to other lawyers and to clients. While some partners may appreciate a late-night text from a young associate regarding a case, others may find that type of communication inappropriate.

Additionally, some partners have an open-door policy, while others prefer scheduled meeting times to strategize on a case. A lawyer with effective boundary skills should communicate his or her boundaries at the beginning of a relationship with those staffing the cases, and actively manage boundaries and expectations as issues arise, because enforcing boundaries is as important as setting them in the first place.

Professional boundaries should also define the interactions between an attorney and the client, and exist to protect both parties. As recognized by the Washington State Bar Association: “No conscientious professional sets out to violate the standards of professional relationships with clients. However, violations can happen, even to those that are dedicated, moral and highly responsible in the overall conduct of their practice.”[8] Failure to implement boundaries within the attorney/client relationship regarding legal fees, communications and other ethical responsibilities can lead to violations of the rules of professional conduct.

Boundary violations can occur if the attorney becomes close friends with a client. This is significant because an important part of the attorney’s role as counselor is to sometimes deliver bad news to a client. If a client is aware that, although you may really like them, they are first and foremost a client, that client may be less likely to take potential bad news personally.

Setting a professional boundary regarding the nature of interactions with clients (meetings at the office versus at someone’s home), the subjects of communications with clients (kid talk versus politics), and the amount of time spent with any particular client could also alleviate this potential boundary violation.

Another common boundary violation may occur if a lawyer represents a friend or family member. Lawyers representing corporations are less likely to run across this possible boundary violation than family or criminal defense lawyers, but all lawyers should be aware of the potential boundary issue.

Lawyers should be aware that failing to set this boundary could result in the lawyer accepting a case he or she lacks the expertise to handle, exposing the lawyer to a potential malpractice claim. A bright-line rule against representing friends or family members might be a prudent boundary for all lawyers, regardless of the practice area.

Boundary issues are also likely to arise if the lawyer invests or goes into business with a client.[9] And it goes without saying that the epitome of a boundary violation is a sexual or romantic relationship between lawyer and client.[10]

Boundaries and Lawyer Wellness

Those interested in lawyer wellness should not discount the importance of boundary setting as an effective form of self-care. It has been widely reported that lawyers are particularly prone to psychological distress and have higher rates of depression and substance abuse than the general population.[11]

Failing to set appropriate boundaries leads to repetition of difficult situations or issues, and inappropriate boundaries affect all areas of our lives. Maladaptive emotional patterns, in time, take a significant toll on mental health. Additionally, failing to set effective boundaries can result in increased stress levels, leading to attorney burnout, the offering of substandard legal services, and even resulting in professional discipline.[12]

According to Doron Gold, a former practicing lawyer and registered social worker currently working with lawyers and law students in his private psychotherapy practice, “[t]oo many lawyers I see are simply too afraid to set boundaries related to workload, and they suffer profoundly as a result.”[13] Sometimes in the practice of law, we are asked to do more than we are capable of doing, leading to a feeling of hopelessness.

That hopeless feeling can lead to depression, anxiety and substance abuse. However, the person failing to set the boundary is effectively choosing a course of action, and therefore, choosing the consequences.[14] “In the same way, people who set a boundary for their own health or sanity also accept, with open eyes, that there may be other consequences associated with that decision. It’s about exercising choice and power in one’s life.”

It is unlikely any attorney sets out to establish a pattern of behavior devoid of appropriate personal boundaries. But, like most good habits, boundary work has to be practiced daily and modified when appropriate. And if setting boundaries allows attorneys to enjoy a long and prosperous legal career while mainlining an identity outside of the office, then better boundaries can only lead to better lawyers.

Jennifer Gibbs is a partner at Zelle LLP.

[1] “Just make it happen mentality is bad for lawyer well-being,” Patrick Krill, www.law.com, March 19, 2019.

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-member-blogs/aca-member-blogs/2017/10/23/mental-health-and-the-current-times-clinical-impact-of-boundaries.

[4] https://crossroadsindy.com/counseling-blog/couples-and-marriage/boundaries-definition-and-types-of-boundaries.

[5] https://lonerwolf.com/personal-boundaries/#.

[6] “The 10 Laws of Boundaries,” Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend, 2017.

[7] Id.

[8] https://wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/member-support/wellness/boundaries.

[9] A lawyer entering a financial relationship with a client should precisely follow the requirements of ABA Model Rule 1.8(a) pertaining to business relationships with a client.

[10] People v. Good, 893 P.2d 101, 103-105 (Colo. 1995) (holding that “[a] sexual relationship between lawyer and client during the course of the professional relationship presents significant dangers, including, at the least, the potential that the client will be injured by the lawyer’s conduct”).

[11] “Saving the Lawyers One Breath at a Time: Mindfulness in the Law,” Law360, Jan. 12, 2017.

[12] https://wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/member-support/wellness/boundaries.

[13] https://www.lawtimesnews.com/archive/the-lawyer-therapist-healthy-boundaries-make-for-healthy-lawyers/260980.

[14] Id.

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