Good Fences Make Happier Lawyers

Boundaries. Most lawyers don’t have many, particularly when it comes to work. That’s the reason so many attorneys are just plain miserable—saying “No” is perceived as a career-limiting move. Yet without boundaries on your time—so you can have a personal life, time to rest, to renew, and to rejuvenate—you’re not going to have career satisfaction. Unless you count lawyering at the AA meeting or in group therapy as highly satisfying.

brick wall under construction

If your boundaries look like this, consider hiring the equivalent of a brick mason.

This isn’t a problem unique to lawyers, particularly in a corporate culture that worships dysfunction as “how business gets done.” Lawyers do make an art form of it, though. Client calls at 8pm on a Saturday? Responding Sunday morning is too late, and Monday is unconscionable. Doesn’t matter if you were going to celebrate your 10th anniversary or had a school play to attend or your dad just went to the hospital with chest pains. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t had a day off in weeks and really just need to sleep and do something, anything, but law. Somehow, the needs of the client, real or (usually) imagined, come first.

The erosion of boundaries between work and everything else has been happening for decades, but it took Blackberries, the Internet, and laptops to really put it on steroids. Oh, and FedEx same-day and Sunday delivery. Those got introduced my last year of law practice, and when I heard about it, I knew many of our lives were going straight to hell. Sunday would no longer be the only day you couldn’t get document or exhibit deliveries, i.e., your only chance at a few hours out of the office.

Work, More Important Than Death

Many, many lawyers go straight through from college to law school, so they never get a sense of what work boundaries should look like or feel like. What you think is normal—because it’s what you see daily in law firms—is actually highly dysfunctional. You might not understand that having boundaries is important. Without them, you don’t have a zone of safety. You are subject to the whims of others, who usually don’t have your best interests at heart.

You know you’ve got a boundary violation when you feel churned up inside. Like you’re the middle of the rope in a nasty game of tug-of-war.

The funny thing about setting boundaries is that often, you get results you didn’t expect. Good ones, even. I know someone who was set to go visit a dying relative with whom she was very close. The partner she was working with had said yes, of course you should go. Until an emergency project came in an hour before she was supposed to leave the office, and then suddenly, that project became way more important than anyone dying. He told her she had to cancel her trip.

She blew a gasket. She yelled at him that she didn’t care about his stupid project, she was going, and fire her if he wanted. And that she would not be speaking to him again until she returned from her trip.

And here’s the magical thing: She wasn’t fired. In fact, this partner left her multiple voice mails apologizing and wanting to make sure she was actually going to come back.

Tips for Drawing Some Lines

As you all well know, that dysfunctional law firm is never going to hug you back. So as impossible as it seems, you need to set some boundaries. Even if it does seem like a career-limiting move. You don’t want the career you have right now anyway, right? Be kind to yourself, and set some limits around time and behavior.

You can start small. For example:

  • Don’t check email first thing when you get up. Take 10 minutes (or much more!) and meditate, sketch, run, knit, or whatever else brings you peace and calm. (That means no watching the news.)
  • Don’t apologize for someone else’s crap behavior in an effort to smooth things over. It’s their behavior to own.
  • Turn off your Crackberry at 11pm. Don’t turn it back on until 6am at the absolute earliest. Even better, wait until 7:30. You need down time if you’re going to do even marginally decent work.
  • Get enough sleep. Your brain, especially the reasoning and executive functions that lawyers use all the time, simply cannot function without enough rest.
  • If someone starts yelling at you in a meeting or on the phone, don’t dive in to defend yourself. Instead, summon as much compassion for yourself as you can, and say “You know, I’ll be glad to talk about this when we’re both calmer.” If they persist, leave the room or the call, saying something like, “I really can’t think my way through this right now.” Contrary to corporate mythology, the best solutions come when you’re relaxed and playful, not pushed to the edge with fear.

OK, so that last one is actually not such a small step. Try it anyway.

A word the the wise: What often happens when you start to set boundaries is that the bad behavior worsens for a while, until the offending party really believes it’s the new normal. The offending party is not going to be a fan of your changing the rules of engagement, and will fight tooth and nail to return the dynamics to what they were before.

Be brave, and refuse to go there any longer. And particularly if you’re dealing with someone who is a legendary ass, let a friendly senior colleague or two know what you’re doing. You’re not alone, and you’ll have surprising amounts of support from people who have wanted to do what you’re doing, but haven’t had the intestinal fortitude. The key is to stay as calm as you can possibly manage while also being firm. In other words, think resolute, not angry.

Remember, the dysfunction of work without boundaries is robbing you of the energy you need for an alternative legal career search. Don’t give your precious energy away, especially to those who don’t deserve it and will squander it to no good end.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys set some boundaries and get a better balance between their work and the whole rest of their lives. Find out what that’s like with a discounted sample coaching session. Email today to schedule yours!

4 thoughts on “Good Fences Make Happier Lawyers

  1. Jennifer,

    You are right on all of these points. And it is important to point these out.

    Yes, your typical BigLaw firm will push attorneys to subsume their personal boundaries entirely to the demands of the practice. The Firm will happily abuse you and take, take, take, unless you establish your own boundaries. And it’s entirely up to you to do so.


    You also know the type of culture that predominates within BigLaw firms and the clients they serve. Boundaries or no, the nature of the work, and the (spoken or unspoken) terms of employment are that the work MUST get done. Huge volumes of work, always with tight deadlines, are the order of the day. In my field, the clients universally demand this. And they simple will not hire you if you do not provide this.

    I’m not saying that this is right. I’m saying that it is the reality. It is dysfunctional. But as much as I criticize these firms, in this instance they are reflecting the clients and the market. The people working at my clients are working right alongside us attorneys as we battle through one all-nighter after another.

    (I would say that one solution is more staffing. Get sufficient staffing for the work, and this work won’t happen. But that just does not happen. This subject is grounds for an entirely separate discussion.)

    What I’m saying is this: At the top end of the BigLaw market, the jealous demand of all of your time – in effect, the demand that work take over your life – is the fundamental nature of the practice. It’s there, stem-to-stern and keel-to-crow’s nest. It’s part of the basic terms of your employment. If you don’t like it, then you should not seek employment at BigLaw (at least as it exists in the market in which I practice).

    You can push back at the edges, in the small ways that you describe. And it is absolutely vital that you do so. But a healthy work-life balance is not a part of my admittedly-narrow field of BigLaw transactional work. And it will never be so without a fundamental shift in the cultures of the Firm and its clients. And the Firm simply WILL NOT change without the clients first changing.

    As a side note (though this post is probably already too long): I am speaking about my own specific market and practice area. Many other practice areas are like mine. But I’ve heard of other practices within BigLaw which are not so crushing. If you find yourself in such a practice, more power to you. Enjoy it, as long as you keep your boundaries.

  2. Pingback: A look at work life balance for lawyers, working at a family-friendly law firm, and setting healthy boundaries | Happy Go Legal

  3. Turn off smart phone at 11pm? That is an issue? Holy sh*t! I thought it was bad enough I had to be at work a few Saturdays a year. Obviously, there are tons of broken, ridiculous lawyers and law firms out there. This insanity has to stop.

    You offer great advice, but maybe the best “boundary” is simply to find a new career…

    • At least in some areas of the law, litigation is one, working six days a week is the norm. For the most part, most (but not all) litigators I know work Monday through Friday, and then part of the day on Saturday. And electronic devices are a big problem in that more than a few will check their email on their device on Sundays and even in the middle of the night when they get up.

      I think that, on this advice, the advice should be turn the smart phone off at 5:00. Nobody really needs to answer one of those things at home, or out of the office after hours, most days. And it will quickly become a
      habit if you let it.

      As for ridiculous lawyers, in at least litigation I fear that these sort of hours and expectations are the norm. It may be ridiculous, as you note, but what quickly becomes the case is that new lawyers are sucked into it as associates, think that they’ll be free from such expectations when they become partners, and then they can’t escape, or think they can’t, at that point. Not working these sorts of hours then can be used against them.

      Which leads to your different career comment. That’s where a lot of us are, at least in trying to do that.

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