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The Most Common Boundary-Setting Mistakes in BigLaw (and How to Avoid Them) - Part 1

A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect

By far the most important ingredient to having a fulfilling career in BigLaw is learning how to set boundaries. Without boundaries, BigLaw attorneys are practically guaranteed to struggle with feelings of exhaustion, frustration, anxiety and regret. But with that said, the process of setting boundaries can be equally intimidating and overwhelming.

In this multi-part post we'll share over the next few weeks, we go through the most common boundary-setting mistakes in BigLaw that we’ve personally made and seen others make, and lay out our best advice on how to avoid them.

Mistake 1. Setting porous / vague boundaries

There are different schools of thought on BigLaw boundary setting. Most will tell you that you need to set flexible boundaries—the thought being that BigLaw is an unpredictable, service-industry job and, while it’s ok to carve out time for things that are important to you, you have to be mindful of your clients’ and teams’ needs and adjust plans accordingly.

In theory, this is good advice. In our view, however, this is not the best approach to boundary setting. Flexible boundaries are, by definition, porous. And the problem with porous boundaries is that, when you set them, you immediately communicate to your colleagues and supervisors that you are not intent on enforcing them.

A porous boundary sends the signal that the boundary is not a high priority for you, and invites others to ‘boundary test’ it.

Consider the following example of a boundary that you might communicate to your team when a weekend assignment comes through that conflicts with your weekend plans.

  • Version 1: ‘I will be out of town this weekend and my availability will be more limited. I will be tied up Saturday, but plan to log in from 10-2 on Sunday to help out.’

  • Version 2: ‘I will be out of town this weekend and my availability will be more limited. I will be tied up at times, but may be able to help out subject to client needs.’

Version 1 is clear, firm and respectful, and is unlikely to be problematic. It is also a fair boundary: it shows that—while you have other obligations like every normal adult does—you’re also responsible and willing to pitch in as soon as you become available. Version 2 is equivocal and porous, betrays a sense of guilt and hesitancy, and invites your supervisors to boundary test by seeing whether you actually mean to set any boundaries over weekend work or not. Understand—your supervisors are unlikely to be malicious and to want to ruin your plans. However, they can’t read your mind and don’t know what your availability is unless you communicate it clearly. If you leave an opening as in version 2, they are justified to assume that you don’t mind being contacted despite your plans.

A boundary must also be clear in order for you and others to honor it. The more clear your boundary is, the less pushback you are going to get. Below is a classic example of a vague boundary.

Example: ‘My plate is full, but I may be able to pitch in a little.’

The problem with this boundary is that it doesn’t clearly convey whether you in fact have a full plate or not. Chances are, what you truly mean to communicate with this statement is ‘I really am quite busy, but I feel guilty to say no.’ The thing is, your supervisors will interpret this boundary according to their own agenda—this is natural and should be expected. You have to understand: you’re asking them to decode an extremely vague statement. What does ‘pitch in a little’ mean? Two hours of work or your entire Sunday? What does ‘may be able to’ mean? And why did you say your plate is full if you have time to pitch in?

As lawyers, we understand better than most the importance of careful wording. In contract drafting, we debate how the placement of a comma could affect the meaning of the document. But then when communicating our boundaries, we introduce vagueness as though it is a virtue.

So instead of saying ‘I may be able to pitch in a little’ consider the following alternatives:

  • ‘My plate is near full, but if it’s a small project I can set aside 2 hours tonight and send you what I have at 8.’

  • ‘My plate is full, but that may change next week. I am happy to give you an update on my availability next week if you still need assistance with this project.’

  • ‘My plate is full, but thank you for thinking of me. Please keep me in mind for your next project.’

Each of these alternatives creates clear, easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow parameters around your boundary. These alternatives are also well-worded and respectful, minimizing any feelings of guilt on your part and feelings of frustration on your supervisors’ part.

To be clear, we aren’t saying that every BigLaw boundary needs to purge any hint of flexibility in order to be effective. Rather, what we are saying is that BigLaw associates often err on the side of thinking that ample flexibility is a necessary feature of all of their BigLaw boundaries. This thinking often leads to ineffective boundaries and, ultimately, dissatisfaction with the job.

Mistake 2. Believing that a boundary has been set when you initially communicate it

This is perhaps the most often neglected and poorly understood rule to boundary setting. By communicating your boundary you have taken an important step, but you are not finished. Setting a boundary is best thought of as an ongoing process as opposed to a one-time event.

The boundary-setting process consists of the following 3 elements:

  1. Communication: verbalizing your boundary to your colleagues;

  2. Action: actually acting in accordance with, and enforcing, your boundary; and

  3. Repetition: repeating steps 1 and 2 as many times as is necessary.

A boundary has not been set until it has been acted upon. This action starts with you. You must actually follow though on what you said and hold to the boundary that you communicated. Your colleagues and supervisors may react to your boundary as well. Especially if it is porous or vague, they may test your boundary to see how you will respond. In these cases, it is important to restate and reaffirm your boundary in clear, firm and respectful terms. Even once they have been trained that you intend to hold to your boundary, your supervisors may forget over time and eventually ask you to do something inconsistent with your boundary. In these instances, it is again important to restate and reaffirm your boundary in clear, firm and respectful terms.

The reality is that reinforcing a boundary is a process that you will have to continue doing throughout your BigLaw career. This is perfectly normal and should not discourage you.

Understand that the need to repeatedly reinforce our boundaries is not required only in BigLaw, but everywhere in life. Your mother may ask you if you can make both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner this year, even though every single year for the last five years you have split the holidays between your and your spouse’s family. Harmony in your family likely requires you to regularly reaffirm your holiday-time boundary. Harmony in your BigLaw career may similarly require you to reaffirm the work boundaries that are important to you.

An example of a workplace boundary that benefits from the communication / action / repetition framework is the flexible work arrangement. Associates may assume that they’ve set a boundary by getting a flexible work arrangement approved by HR and their supervisors. Relatedly, we often hear BigLaw attorneys say that they’ve heard of other attorneys on flexible work arrangements who end up billing regular hours by the end of the year, so they wonder if these arrangements really work. Having each been on flexible schedules for the last five years, we can assure you that getting the arrangement in place is great, but it’s just the first step of a regularly recurring process of enforcing and reinforcing the boundary. This may include:

  • having to regularly remind others that you’re on a flexible arrangement (whether it’s working remotely, fewer hours per day, fewer days per week, only on certain types of clients / projects, etc.);

  • not assuming that others, including your direct supervisors, are paying constant close attention to your schedule to ensure you’re able to stick to your flexible arrangement (do not read any ill will into this—they just don’t have the time);

  • not being offended when others forget about, or otherwise ignore, your flexible arrangement boundary: simply restate the boundary in clear, firm and respectful terms; and

  • actively advocating for yourself and your flexible arrangement by monitoring your workload and speaking up if / when things start to get out of control.

Once you understand and fully internalize that setting workplace boundaries is an ongoing process rather than a single communicative event, then you will become much more effective at setting them. If you stop at step 1—communication—then too many things have to go right for the boundary to be effective. Action and repetition are just as important, if not more so.

Mistake 3. Believing that you’re doing something wrong if the boundary-setting experience is uncomfortable

Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable. At times, it may even cause feelings of debilitating discomfort and guilt. Many attorneys confuse these feelings for a sign that they’re doing something wrong or are being unreasonable, or that BigLaw is not an environment that’s conducive to boundary setting. That is not the case.

Experiencing discomfort upon setting, enforcing and reinforcing a boundary is actually a natural part of the boundary-setting process. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or attorney. It also doesn’t mean that your boundary isn’t valid. All it means is that you’re doing the hard work of designing a fulfilling BigLaw experience for yourself.

Referring back the example from item 2 above, if your mother asks you to attend both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner this year, you may experience some guilt or sadness in telling her your alternative Christmas plans with your spouse’s family. The guilt that you may feel when setting this boundary doesn’t make you a bad son or daughter. Rather, it’s the sign of a healthy adult relationship. The guilt that you may experience when setting workplace boundaries is no different. Understand that guilt is simply part of the boundary-setting process, especially if you do not have significant experience setting healthy workplace boundaries.

For groundbreaking insight into how to navigate the discomfort that comes with boundary setting, we highly recommend Nedra Tawwab’s ‘Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.’ In her book, Ms. Tawwab explains in detail that guilt-free boundary setting is simply not a thing, but that, with practice, the discomfort will become easier to manage.

Your boundaries are your key to a happy and fulfilling BigLaw experience. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable, but understand that boundaries are required. The guilt that you may feel in setting them is also a required part of the process. Accept it. Celebrate it even, if you can. Treat it as a sign that you progressing toward a healthier relationship with your BigLaw career.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

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