Setting and Maintaining Boundaries with Clients

Ritu Goswamy

This is a guest post by Ritu Goswamy, Esq., lawyer, productivity strategist, and author of The New Billable Hour.

As lawyers, we like structure and order. We want to be organized. While others may feel limited by rules, lawyers seek them out. However, when it comes to actually setting boundaries, lawyers may not know where to start. Boundaries are how we communicate to others, and ourselves, about what is most important to us. The usual pace of a lawyer’s life means quickly moving from one task to the next, often reacting to the loudest outside force. The effort of deciding how we want to structure a manageable workflow is often left to the wayside.

Now that we have slowed down enough to notice the effects of a reactive lifestyle, we can make some changes. Whether you are working from home, at the office, or some combination, boundaries with clients need to be set. And you are the only person who can set them. To give you some guidance, here’s how to do it in 3 steps:

Determine What Outcomes You Want for Your Clients

Starting generally, what is your philosophy of lawyering? Are you client-centered? Do you want to take a more authoritative role? What result (other than winning the case) do you want for your clients so that they will refer their friends to you? Make a list of the outcomes you want for your clients. And then make a list of some rules or boundaries you can have in place that will encourage those outcomes. For example, if you want your clients to be informed, what rule can you create to make communication easier? 

An immigration lawyer I am working with regularly reaches out to all of her clients when there is change in law. She informs them that she is analyzing each case and will contact them individually if needed. This gives the client peace of mind that their lawyer is paying attention to the case and communicating about it. One of the biggest complaints clients have about their lawyers is lack of communication. Being proactive is a way to set a boundary while serving your clients.

Decide What's Most Important for You in Client Relationships

How does your ideal client behave? What do they do that makes you want to keep working with them? Describe your ideal client’s motivations to help you. What boundaries or rules can you have in place to keep them motivated? For example, if your client values deadlines, what can you create to make sure those deadlines are communicated back and forth?

A personal injury lawyer I work with keeps his cases moving, especially those in litigation. He does this by giving his clients tasks to do in anticipation of the next step. Clients love to ask their lawyer, “What happens next?” By giving the client something to work on, they will be motivated about their case. They may even bother you less with their anxious questions since they feel more secure.

Find the Common Ground Between You and Your Clients

Then you can put it all together. When you have investigated both your clients’ and your own needs, the last step is to see where there is overlap. You may be surprised to see that your clients and you have a lot in common! In the lawyer-client relationship, when we align in our values, the team functions well. It may seem different to look at boundaries as a way to expand our effectiveness. We can think of boundaries as restrictive and not good lawyering. But by creating your own structure, based on your common values, you can be more creative and responsive – which makes for a better lawyer.

A corporate lawyer I worked with made sure to be in alignment with his clients’ needs. He understood their fears of failure in business, since he had felt them for himself too. By connecting with his clients and being authentic about what he could (and couldn’t) do, his relationships with his clients became more fulfilling and the clients were better served.

Our relationships with clients, along with our workflow, can function more effectively by intentionally setting boundaries. What is your bandwidth to serve all your clients well? How can you invite clients to focus on their cases? These answers will be different for everyone, but one thing remains true: Setting boundaries will set you (and your clients) free.

Ritu Goswamy

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