This article was originally published by “Law Institute Journal”
By Dr. Michelle Pizer
BOUNDARIES AT WORK: IT’S A TWO-WAY STREET
LOOK FOR WAYS TO SET BOUNDARIES THAT WORK FOR YOU, YOUR FIRM AND YOUR CLIENTS.
The retired managing partner of (now) Allens, Tom Poulton, famously said “the client is God”. That was in 2005. It seems not much has changed. In June 2021, the Thomson Reuters Stellar Performance survey of almost 2500 lawyers across 61 countries, including Australia, found that when it comes to being available for clients, 49 percent of senior lawyers don’t think they should set any boundaries at all.
What can you do when having a life is counter to the prevailing culture? It’s a wicked problem that’s worth wrestling with because your wellbeing and career is at stake. Simply put, you look for ways to set boundaries that work for you, your firm and your clients.
Of course, it’s not so easy in practice. In the realm of personal boundaries, you are responsible. You get to decide your limits, what you like and don’t like, what you will and won’t do. But at work, there are power differences, colleagues and cultural expectations to fit in with too.
Not that it all falls on your shoulders. Setting and maintaining boundaries at work is a two-way street. The workplace has a part to play too.
1. Teach your clients
Some clients forget that they’re not your only one.It’s up to you to teach your clients how to treat you.
2. Get off on the right foot
When you start working with a new client lay down ground rules. Here’s a script:“If it’s critically urgent, I’ll be there for you 24/7. At the same time, please respect that not everything is urgent and that I’m always balancing priorities. My aim is to ensure you get the best possible result.”
3. Contain their anxiety
Most clients are reasonable. You just need to show them what to expect. A client wants the best outcome more than a fast response. The key is to manage their anxiety while they’re waiting.
What’s within your control
I’ve worked with many lawyers who believe their only choice is between compromising their wellbeing and a career limiting move. To address this sense of helplessness that leads to poor wellbeing outcomes, focus on what’s in your control. Better boundaries start with recognising, and not underestimating, what you can do for yourself.
Know your limits
In any job/career, some form of trade-off is inevitable. Still, even in a workplace, you get to decide what’s acceptable to you. That’s always within your control. Your email autoresponder can help, letting everyone know your normal working days/hours and what to do in an emergency. As can educating your clients that responsiveness does not represent quality, and that a rested lawyer does better work.
Choose your area of law
It’s easier to set and maintain boundaries in some areas of the law than others. So, choose the area that best supports your values and the lifestyle you want. If you can’t keep regular, reasonable hours, be sure to schedule chunks of time off.We all have only so much water in the well and it helps to have something to look forward to, even a staycation.
Don’t let the negative self-talk in
The stories you tell yourself about yourself, what you make a situation mean and your role in it, matters for your wellbeing. It’s another boundary within your control. So, if your story isn’t serving you well, consider revising. It’s called self-compassion. The aim is to tell yourself a better, more constructive, story.
What firms can do
Lawyers are known to have more wellbeing challenges than the average worker. It’s a complex problem requiring a multifaceted solution – one that addresses how work is organised, social factors such as leadership and culture, and the physical work environment.
And there is hope. In June 2021, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) released ISO 45003. It’s the first globally agreed best practice manual for how to prevent exposure to psychosocial risk and promote
These guidelines highlight how common solutions of providing resources to workers such as mental health first aid training, and programs such as employee assistance and return to work are important but not sufficient for worker wellbeing. Organisations need to employ primary controls to prevent risk through, for example, better work design.
If your firm is a slower adopter of these guidelines, there are smaller steps leaders can take to do their part in setting boundaries for worker wellbeing. Even if it’s only within your workgroup, cultural levers such as actively discouraging employees from checking emails over the weekend or challenging staff who work too many hours and helping them solve that issue, can be a good place to start.