You probably practice law because you enjoy the challenge. It is easy to let the work seep into everything you do; it can become all-consuming. According to the International Bar Association, more than 60% of lawyers are concerned about work-life balance leading many to consider leaving the profession.

I knew one lawyer who was a rock-star associate. She billed a huge number of hours during her first year and then burned out completely because that’s what a year of not sleeping will do to you.

I’ve heard of more than one lawyer changing their own wedding date because something came up at work, and there is a reason lawyers suffer depression at a rate nearly five times that of the general population. 

Then, and this is a true story, there is a lawyer who, in open court, stated that he could not make a court date because he’d be on his honeymoon. The judge and the opposing counsel congratulated him and happily adjusted the date. 

You can’t have everything all the time – attending all the weddings of your sorority sisters in one summer is likely too much – but if you don’t set some boundaries, you will make life unliveable and your career unsustainable. 

The challenge of setting boundaries shifts over the years. As an associate, you have less say over your schedule, so the challenge is carving out space and setting boundaries where possible. As a rainmaker, you have the power to set boundaries; often, the challenge is breaking the habits of the past.

Wherever you are in your career, setting boundaries is a practice, so let’s talk about why it’s important and how to do it. 

The Importance of Establishing Boundaries in Legal Practice

Achieving a sustainable balance in legal practice requires boundaries. These include delineating your working hours, prioritizing tasks effectively, and learning when to say no.

Self-imposed restrictions like taking routine breaks, finishing your work by a specific time, or balancing your weekend work with a few free hours during the week become instrumental to your mental and physical well-being.

As I mentioned in the introduction, a lack of boundaries impacts work-life balance, can lead to increased depression, job dissatisfaction, no time for family or friends (leading to the continuous apology tour), and can even harm your physical health.  

But it’s not just about you. If you are overstressed, your work won’t be as good. Taking time for yourself allows you to re-energize, change your perspective, and give your subconscious time to digest and solve critical issues, which are good for you and help you serve your clients more effectively. 

So, setting boundaries is good for you, your career, and your clients. 

Overcoming the Challenge of Setting Boundaries Early in Your Career

Recognizing the importance of setting boundaries is one thing; implementing them is another.

The first step involves getting comfortable with the idea that it’s perfectly okay and necessary to prioritize your needs. But what can you do if you aren’t a rainmaker and have limited control over your schedule? 

I asked Emily Stedman this question; she’s a corporate litigator a big-law partner, and an advocate for lawyer well-being. She mentioned two strategies that particularly caught my attention.

The first was to use your calendar plan to make time for the things that matter. A plan will help you prioritize.

The second is she said she does something for herself every day – it could be something big or small, but she makes a point of doing something every day.  

When I asked Matt Schwartz, practice group leader at DLA Piper what he thought, he also talked about planning and added the idea of communication.

If the lawyer going on his honeymoon hadn’t communicated he was going on his honeymoon, nobody would have known, and he would have ended up with an inconvenient court date, a missed honeymoon, and an unhappy spouse. Communication was all it took. 

You can also buy time for yourself by hiring someone to clean, prepare meals, or take care of the non-lawyering tasks, which can soak up time and keep you from doing the things that allow you to recharge. 

A note on mindfulness 

Practicing mindfulness can help you understand and define your boundaries. 

Emily brought up meditation as a helpful practice; maybe you want to incorporate meditation. But mindfulness isn’t only about meditation. It’s about paying attention to what you’re doing and only what you are doing in the present moment. An important tenet of paying attention is that when something happens you pause and choose your reaction, rather than reacting automatically. 

The pause can be a single second, but that one second is an important boundary that allows you to act with intention and in line with your needs. 

Some things you can to set boundaries in .1: 

  • Communicate your needs.
  • List your priorities. 
  • Plan the day and add a couple of breaks.  
  • Take a 6-minute break. 
  • Ask for a reference for someone who can clean your home. 
  • Ask for a reference for someone to cook meals. 
  • Meditate by focusing on your breathing for 6 minutes.
  • Practice mindfulness. 

Strategies for Setting Specific Boundaries as Your Career Progresses

The best way to ensure you can set stronger and more meaningful boundaries is to build a book of business. Once you have a book of business, you set the agenda and can more effectively set boundaries. 

Matt Schwartz made the point that you may never entirely escape weekend work. But, if you set the agenda, you can minimize it and, when you do work all weekend you can create some time for yourself during the week.  

The challenge for rainmakers often comes down to changing your mindset from accepting someone else’s priorities to setting the priorities yourself.

As a rainmaker, know what matters to you and make time for it. Your firm should support you regardless; if they don’t and you realize that your firm won’t let you set boundaries even as a rainmaker, you can find another firm that will.  

Boundaries can be challenging but are essential

It’s easy to be drawn into the challenge of work, it can be very rewarding. But if you don’t set boundaries, it can be all-consuming, damaging to your health, and even harmful to your clients. 

Setting boundaries isn’t always easy. It takes effort and can even lead to uncomfortable conversations, but it’s also essential for your life and the sustainability of your career. 

There are things you can do as an associate to set boundaries, but the real power comes with a book of business. As a rainmaker, you have the power; the key is to know how to wield it and what you want to prioritize.