The Most Common Boundary-Setting Mistakes in BigLaw (and How to Avoid Them) - Part 3
You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm
Learning how to set boundaries is the key to your success and longevity in BigLaw. In Part 2 of this multi-part series, we discussed why BigLaw boundaries fail so often: because we’re not committed to upholding them and violate our own boundaries (Mistake 4); because we give up when others test our boundaries instead of trying to reinforce them (Mistake 5); because we miscalculate the risks when deciding how to react to our boundaries being tested, weighing far-fetched professional repercussions way more heavily than the negative repercussions of not setting boundaries on our health, happiness and personal relationships (Mistake 6); and because we’re waiting for a ‘good time’ to set boundaries instead of setting them when we most need them (Mistake 7). Here, we continue the discussion of common boundary-setting mistakes and misconceptions in BigLaw, and lay out our best advice on how to avoid them.
Mistake 8. Thinking that you need a ‘valid’ reason to have a boundary
Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable, and in high-stress environments like BigLaw it can cause such debilitating discomfort that many would rather leave the industry altogether than attempt any sort of work-life balance. Having an excuse to set a boundary can help relieve that discomfort. Indeed, the poster child for work-life balance in BigLaw, and throughout corporate America, is a working mother switching to a flexible schedule while her kids are young, or taking a couple of hours off at night to spend time with them before dutifully logging back in to attend to emails at 9pm. It may seem like this is the only type of boundary permissible in BigLaw, but we beg to differ:
You don’t need to have a small child, an aging parent, a doctor’s appointment, a wedding or a funeral in order to have pockets of unavailability or feel like you’re justified in setting a boundary in BigLaw. In fact, you don’t need any excuse at all.
Understand: everyone—regardless of their age, seniority, marital status and circumstances—has a right to pursue life-work balance and attend to the things that are important to them. Balance is not reserved for those who are married and have a mortgage, children or other ‘serious’ responsibilities. Hanging out with a boyfriend is just as valid as spending time with a husband of 10 years. Tending to your mental and physical health as a single person with no apparent obligations is just as valid as tending to your mental and physical health as an exhausted mother of three. It’s ok to want to go on vacation because vacations are fun—you don’t need to have skipped vacation the last two years or to not have seen your friends and family for extended periods of time in order for your time off to be ‘justified.’
But justifications are not only unnecessary—they’re also inadvisable for two reasons. First, over-justifying and apologizing for your boundary indicates hesitancy and discomfort, and invites others to test it. Simply state the boundary, and enforce it confidently and respectfully. For example, say ‘I will be out of office Sept. 1-10’ instead of ‘My apologies, but I need to be out of office Sept. 1-10 in order to…” Second:
If you get accustomed to attaching a ‘valid’ justification to every BigLaw boundary you’re trying to enforce, then you set an unsustainable precedent that you likely won’t be able to keep up with for a very long time (this is the ‘you only have so many grandparents who can die’ problem).
Furthermore, you’re setting yourself up for an unfulfilling existence: it’s unreasonable to only set boundaries in connection with milestone life events and responsibilities such as deaths, births and hospitalizations.
With this said, while any boundary that you need is an okay boundary to set, non-traditional and / or quality-of-life enhancing boundaries may cause others to make assumptions about your priorities and dedication to your BigLaw job that may be entirely off-base. The reason is that different people have different value systems, and your supervisors and teams may not understand or agree with your boundary.
For example, if your boundary is that you need to switch to an 80% flexible schedule in order to care for your mother who has advanced MS, many of your colleagues will likely understand: having an ailing relative is a commonly shared experience and most everyone has had to live through the struggle of juggling a busy job while caring for others. But imagine that you’re really into zero-waste cooking and want to switch to an 80% flexible schedule so you can spend more time focusing on your culinary TikTok that is starting to take off. Or, alternatively, imagine that you simply want a flexible schedule so that you can travel more. Some may consider a cooking / traveling boundary frivolous or a sign that you don’t care about your BigLaw job. This may be completely false, but you may still face lack of understanding and support in enforcing such a boundary.
Thus—while non-traditional / quality-of-life enhancing boundaries are valid—justifying them in a profession where long working hours and stress are a big part of the culture could be an uphill battle. In instances where you need to set such a boundary, consider simply stating that you’d like to set a boundary for ‘personal reasons.’
Mistake 9. Thinking you can't set boundaries as a new junior / lateral
Junior associates and new laterals often think that they’re expected to ‘pay their dues’ in order to ‘earn’ their right to set boundaries later on in their BigLaw careers. It’s true that when you first start out, it’s critical to build relationships and goodwill. What's not true is that you should ever subject yourself to a miserable, boundary-less BigLaw experience regardless of how little time you’ve spent with your firm.
Juniors and new laterals can and should carve out time for the things that are most important to them. Indeed, if you don’t start setting boundaries early, you may never learn the necessary skills required to set them. Relatedly, if you don’t set any boundaries in the beginning, you’re at risk of establishing a reputation as someone who has no boundaries, and that is a difficult thing to un-establish later on.
You’re also in danger of dedicating yourself to the job so blindly that you either flame out before you’ve had a chance to set yourself up financially or, if you’re able to stick it out, become a shell of your former self. It’s no wonder that there are so many older folks in corporate America who keep working well into their 70s and beyond: many have been working so hard for so many years that they've long lost touch with the hobbies they used to enjoy when they were younger, and may not even know what to do when faced with a chunk of free time. Don’t become this person.
So our advice to juniors and new laterals is this: start setting reasonable boundaries early and evaluate them regularly to ensure they are putting you on a path to the life you want to have. But also be realistic: it probably won’t go over well if you start setting too many boundaries right away.
Our personal approach when we were junior associates was to set just one firm boundary around the thing that mattered most to us: vacation. In those early days, we spent long hours in the office and often worked weekends, but vacations were sacred from day 1. Over time, as we became more senior and built our reputations, we started creating additional boundaries and adjusting any prior boundaries to design the life we want.
Mistake 10. Thinking that you can’t set boundaries if you’re not making your hours (or are billing significantly less than your teams)
BigLaw associates struggle to set boundaries under any circumstances, but especially so if they’re not making their hours or are not billing nearly as much as their teams. We won’t lie to you: people may be less sympathetic to your boundaries in those situations, but there may still be circumstances in which you should seek to establish boundaries, including (but not limited to) the following:
Your mental health is at risk. If your mental health is at risk, you need to set boundaries immediately, regardless of the circumstances. There is simply nothing more important than protecting your health, sanity and well-being.
You’re burned out. Occasionally we hear associates say something to the effect of: ‘I’m really overwhelmed, but my whole team is billing 250+ and I’m at 200, so I can’t really say no to more work.’ Understand: people have different life responsibilities and different pain thresholds. Comparing your hours to somebody else’s hours is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Burnout does not occur at a specified billable hour number. It strikes when it strikes depending on a whole set of individual circumstances: for some, that may happen at 250 hours; for others, it may happen a lot sooner. To determine whether you need to set a boundary, you should listen to your own mind, body and needs, rather than suffer in silence until you’ve hit what you perceive to be a socially acceptable boundary threshold. Plus, you have to remember that others may be billing more, but their work product quality may suffer as a result. Work on protecting your mental and physical health, and your work product may benefit, too.
You have other life responsibilities. Many people have responsibilities outside of their BigLaw job. Some of these responsibilities may be so important to you that you may need or want to prioritize them over your firm’s billable hour requirement. That's ok and it doesn’t make you a bad person or attorney. To alleviate the stress of not making your hours, you can consider switching to a flexible schedule that would allow you to attend to those responsibilities while meeting a reduced-hour target, or otherwise discussing options with your supervisor.
Comparison, as they say, is the thief of joy. So, hard as it is, try not to compare yourself to others. The unstructured environment of BigLaw often creates the perception that you are 'supposed' to do something more than what you are already doing. Understand that it's okay to do what feels right to you. In fact, your happiness may depend on it.
Read Part 4 of this series here.