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The Most Common Boundary-Setting Mistakes in BigLaw (and How to Avoid Them) - Part 4

Lack of boundaries is not a flex

Learning how to effectively set boundaries in BigLaw is one of the toughest nuts to crack. In Part 3 of this multi-part series, we addressed some common mental traps that BigLaw attorneys succumb to: they are scared to set boundaries that they don’t feel are justified by a ‘valid’ reason (Mistake 8); they believe they are too junior to set boundaries (Mistake 9); and they fear they are not billing enough to set boundaries (Mistake 10). Here, we present the fourth and final installment in our discussion of common boundary-setting mistakes and misconceptions in BigLaw, along with our best advice on how to avoid them.

Mistake 11. Setting boundaries that don’t protect anything

Often, the most effective BigLaw boundaries take the form of solid engagements or commitments that have the effect of forcing your BigLaw job responsibilities to mold around those engagements and commitments. For example, if you manage to attend little Billy’s tee-ball game or go to a yoga class, then any work responsibilities will typically be put on hold for the duration of that commitment. Thus, a boundary that takes the form of ‘I will be out of pocket from 4pm - 6pm tonight’ to attend to a solid commitment can work well because you truly will be out of pocket during that time.

An often ineffective boundary, on the other hand, is one that carves out some time that doesn’t exactly protect anything. Maybe you’re burned out and just want a little free time in the evenings, but don’t necessarily know what to do with it. Or maybe an 80% flex schedule to remove some billing pressure is enticing, but you don’t have new commitments to fill the formerly occupied 20%. Or perhaps instead of really getting away, you are considering a staycation that keeps you in the vicinity of your laptop. There is nothing wrong with unstructured free time. Far from it. In fact, we’ve found that such time can kick-start imagination and help recharge.

But it’s critical to recognize that BigLaw has an antagonistic relationship with uncommitted time. BigLaw is like water—it fills any vessel no matter the shape and no matter the size. So if you want to protect some time for yourself, the best way to do so is by introducing something solid that changes the amount of available space into which the job can flow.

Or to try a Western metaphor: instead of trying to tame the wild stallion that is BigLaw, you might instead choose to manage the size of the corral in which he is permitted to buck and kick. Consider where you are likely to be successful in exerting control, and where you are not.

If more commitments is not what you’re looking for, then all is not necessarily lost. But you are going to have commit to your uncommitted time the same way you would commit to a firmer obligation. Turn your phone off. Physically remove your laptop from your line of sight. BigLaw is a force to be reckoned with, so extreme steps are necessary. Underestimate it at your peril.

Mistake 12. Not calibrating your boundaries to your goals

Think of your boundaries as creating a path to help you achieve the life that you aspire to lead. What are you trying to achieve with BigLaw? What would help you get there?

For example, if you aren’t interested in partnership, then it is not necessary to model your boundaries against that of a partner or partner hopeful. If a young income partner desperate to prove herself to the equity partners is finding it impossible to get uninterrupted time away on vacation, does that mean that you should also find it impossible to get uninterrupted time away on vacation?

To know what boundaries you need, it’s not enough to simply look at what boundaries others are setting. Of course, it’s helpful to look around and take some cues from your colleagues. But ultimately you’re going to have to introspect a little and determine what it is that you want out of BigLaw, and then craft boundaries that further those goals. If you’re pursuing a ‘three and flee’ plan meant to pay off your student loans and then bounce, then you’ll be able to get away with much more as a young associate than someone who intends to stay longer. For us, it was important to build up significant leverage with fewer boundaries in the early years that we would then deploy to obtain significantly greater boundaries in the middle and later years, allowing for our desired mix of both lifestyle and BigLaw longevity. Your boundaries are ultimately about your needs, so make sure they reflect them.

Mistake 13. Not setting boundaries at all or, worse, actively communicating you have no boundaries

A large number of BigLaw attorneys fall into the unfortunate category of people who have no workplace boundaries to speak of. This is unhealthy, unsustainable and unnecessary. Whatever your goals are, you simply cannot happily progress through life without boundaries. Boundaries are not just a normal part of the human experience—they also ensure you’re going to lead a life of no, or at least fewer, regrets. Whether your goal is to make partner or quit as soon as your student loans are paid off, boundaries will make your BigLaw experience a lot more fulfilling and, ultimately, a lot more successful too.

It’s not uncommon for BigLaw attorneys to believe that a lack of boundaries makes them a better attorney and increases their chances of making partner. In the process, they’ll make unreasonable sacrifices to the tune of working during doctor’s appointments, sending out-of-office messages when they plan to be out on a Saturday, apologizing to their teams when a family member dies and they have to attend their funeral, skipping weddings of family and close friends, sacrificing personal relationships, not exercising… the list goes on.

The truth is that when you actively communicate that you have no boundaries, then you are also actively communicating your position of weakness. You are saying that you lack the self-respect to stand up for yourself. You are saying that you are desperate to please your superiors whatever the personal cost. You are saying that you lack the skill and ability to manage both a professional and personal life. Lack of boundaries is not a flex: it's failure.

Furthermore, BigLaw is tough enough without adding to a toxic culture that glorifies the lack of boundaries. What example do you wish to set for younger associates? What do you want the legal industry to look like? You can either choose to be part of BigLaw’s problem, or you can choose to be part of the solution.

Mistake 14. Not saving

Setting, enforcing and reinforcing boundaries is extremely difficult. It’s a process that will have you question your sanity and ability to survive (let alone thrive) in BigLaw. While we’ve read many thoughtful books and articles on the subject, and while we’ve long understood the theory and importance of boundaries, the no. 1 thing that has helped us actually effect them in practice—and this will come as no surprise—is saving and investing the majority of your BigLaw salary. If you have a BigLaw income addiction, then don’t be surprised if you are experiencing the shakes, with little to no control over your job. But if you’ve managed your expenses and aggressively saved to the point where you are no longer dependent on your BigLaw salary, then you’ll find it much easier to set boundaries. It may even start to come naturally.

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