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The Most Common Boundary-Setting Mistakes in BigLaw (and How to Avoid Them) - Part 2

Protecting your energy is your no. 1 job

There is perhaps nothing more important to your success in BigLaw than your ability to set boundaries. In Part 1 of this multi-part series, we discussed how clear and firm boundaries are better than vague and porous boundaries (Mistake 1); how communicating your boundary is not the same thing as setting your boundary, which requires the additional steps of action and repetition (Mistake 2); and how guilt or discomfort is an inevitable part of the boundary-setting process (Mistake 3). Here, we continue the discussion of common boundary-setting mistakes in BigLaw, and lay out our best advice on how to avoid them.

Mistake 4. Violating your own boundary

If you want others to honor your boundary, then you have to be willing to honor that boundary yourself. Obvious, right? When you tell little Timmy ‘no snacks before dinner!’ as you scarf down a bowl of chips, then you shouldn’t be surprised when he does the same. The adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ has never worked in any context, and it doesn’t work when setting boundaries either.

Violating your own boundary sends a mixed signal. Your words say that you have a boundary, but your actions say something different. When others try to interpret these mixed signals, they will typically take their cues from your actions instead of your words.

A classic example is communicating to your teams that you’re out of office with limited service, yet still responding to emails. Some emails are going to be critical and time-sensitive, and you absolutely should forward those to whoever is covering in your absence. We’re not talking about those emails. What we often see is associates—out of a sense of guilt or eagerness or a combination of both—responding to immaterial emails while out of office to demonstrate dedication to the job. It’s great to be dedicated, responsible and driven, but understand that you are setting a precedent that you likely won’t be able to keep up with for a very long time. There may be times when it’s convenient to respond to a few emails while you’re out, but the signal you’re sending to your teams is ‘yes, I have an out-of-office message up, but I’m willing to work.’ You can’t blame them if they take you up on the invitation to continue emailing you throughout your vacation and expect a response.

Ultimately, if you don’t respect your own boundary, you’re inviting others to violate it too.

This means that it’s important to be extremely thoughtful when choosing your boundaries, and to ensure that you yourself are committed to them. The worst thing that can happen is you build your reputation as a serial violator of your own boundaries. If that happens, then you may have trouble getting people to honor even the boundaries that you do follow through on. On the other hand, build your reputation as someone who sets clear and fair boundaries that your teams know you will enforce, and you’ll be in control of your BigLaw experience.

Mistake 5. Giving up when others test your boundary

One of the most frequent boundary-setting mistakes that transpires in BigLaw goes something like this:

  1. Attorney communicates a boundary.

  2. Others test the boundary.

  3. Attorney thinks, ‘They don’t respect my boundary’ or ‘BigLaw is not an environment where it’s possible to set boundaries,’ surrenders him/herself to a boundary-less BigLaw experience, and eventually quits in disappointment.

Many BigLaw attorneys will interpret the fact that a boundary is tested as proof that the boundary has failed. This is not accurate. It is an inevitable part of life in BigLaw (and life in general!) that your boundaries will be tested by others. In BigLaw, it’s just part of the job. You cannot escape that, so don’t fight it. Just remember the communication / action / repetition framework from Part 1.

In truth, setting boundaries doesn’t actually depend on other people all that much: it depends on you. If understood correctly, this realization is incredibly empowering. It means that you—and not others—have the power to dictate whether your boundary will succeed or fail.

The success of a boundary is primarily driven by your own willingness to enforce it. In other words, it depends on how you choose to react when your boundary is tested.

For example, consider a situation where you told your partner supervisor yesterday that you are slammed and needed more time on a deliverable, yet today he is asking if you are interested in helping on a new matter. Many BigLaw attorneys may view this situation as evidence that it is impossible to control your workload in BigLaw. The truth is that you have the option to respectfully restate your boundary and suggest that while the new matter sounds interesting, you can’t make it work this time with your existing workload, but would like for the partner to keep you in mind in the future. The important thing to remember is that you should not interpret this as a violation of your boundary, but simply an instance in which you have to respectfully restate your boundary.

There may of course be times when your boundaries are tested so frequently that it’s exhausting and, frankly, unsustainable to have to continuously defend them. We’re not saying that there aren’t easier boundary-setting environments than BigLaw and, if things aren’t working out, you're entitled to quit BigLaw for another job where setting and maintaining boundaries may be easier. The point is simply this:

BigLaw makes many people feel powerless, but you have much more control than you think. Many BigLaw attorneys will give up on their boundaries before they’ve even tried to reinforce them, let alone go through the full range of boundary-setting steps required to successfully establish a boundary. It’s worth standing up for yourself and your boundaries before giving up on the financial opportunity of a lifetime.

Mistake 6. Miscalculating the risks when deciding how to react to your boundary being tested

A variation of the prior mistake is to miscalculate the risks associated with restating your boundary. In a situation where their boundary is tested—as in the prior example of a partner asking if you want to help on a new matter after you’ve already communicated you’re underwater—many BigLaw attorneys will feel like they have no way out. While having your boundary be tested feels overwhelming and is undoubtedly uncomfortable, you do actually have options. There is a choice to be made, and you get to make it.

This is where BigLaw attorneys usually get tripped up and over-exaggerate the perceived risk of reaffirming their boundary (in clinical settings, this is referred to as ‘catastrophizing’).

Some will assume they will get fired—this is exceptionally unlikely. Many assume they’ll burn bridges—this is also not particularly likely if you demonstrate your dedication at other times (in many instances, boundaries actually invite respect from others). Many assume that longevity and success in BigLaw require you to say yes to work that you don’t have time for. Depending on your definition of ‘success,’ there could be some truth to this. Making partner can sometimes require substantial sacrifice.

What most BigLaw attorneys miss, however, is that the risk is not all one-way—there is risk involved in either choice. There is the risk of saying ‘no’ to the partner (which BigLaw attorneys are hyper-focused on and tend to exaggerate), and the risk of saying ‘no’ to ourselves (which BigLaw attorneys typically overlook and tend to minimize or ignore). In fact, the risks and repercussions of violating our own boundaries can be just as serious. For example:

  1. If you choose not to enforce the boundaries that are important to you, you may not last very long in BigLaw. Even if you are interested in partnership, without boundaries, you may not last the 7+ years required to find out whether you’ll make it. Setting boundaries extends your longevity in BigLaw and therefore makes it much more likely you’ll be around and still wanting to be partner when elevation time comes.

  2. If you choose not to enforce the boundaries that are important to you, your personal relationships outside of work may suffer. Everyone knows the attorney who worked him/herself out of a marriage, or was too busy to attend an important family event. When the job becomes all-consuming, it’s easy to forget that those relationships matter too. In fact, they matter a lot more to most of us.

  3. If you choose not to enforce the boundaries that are important to you, you may feel unhappy or unfulfilled. For many of us, feeling happy and successful in life requires more than being perceived as the ultimate go-getter at work.

  4. If you choose not to enforce the boundaries that are important to you, you may at some point in life experience significant regret over the personal sacrifices made. Whether you choose to pursue partnership or not, you should not lose yourself in the job. At a minimum, identify the one or two things that matter the most to you and protect them with reasonable boundaries. At the end of the day, this is what is going to make all the difference between success on paper and actual, deeper fulfillment.

Simply put, it is important that you consider the full range of risks when deciding how to react to your boundaries being tested. Long-term risks are notoriously difficult to evaluate in the moment, but in many cases those are the risks that you most need to guard against to ensure your longevity and fulfillment in BigLaw.

Mistake 7. Waiting for a ‘good’ time to set a boundary

Countless BigLaw attorneys have spent years waiting for a ‘good' time to go on vacation, or for a ‘good’ time to take their spouse out to that new restaurant, or for a ‘good’ time to start attending yoga classes at the studio that is only two blocks away. If you wait for a ‘good’ time to set a boundary, you may wait for the entire duration of your BigLaw career.

But, even more importantly, if you are waiting for a ‘good’ time to set your boundaries, then your thinking on the subject is backwards. If the ‘good’ time finally comes, then will you even need the boundary anymore?

Scheduling-related boundaries are most important when time is scarce, not when it is plentiful. Understand that by waiting for a ‘good’ time to set a boundary, what you are actually doing is avoiding ever having to set any boundaries at all—and that’s not a winning strategy for navigating one of the most demanding jobs in America.

Read Part 3 of this series here.

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