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Setting professional boundaries with clients

Boundaries are an important part of any relationship. They provide basic guidelines that establish how people can – and can’t – behave around each other to help ensure that a relationship is mutually respectful.

One of the most important types of boundaries to set–yet is perhaps often most avoided–are those in the workplace. Whether it’s boundaries between you and your partners, your associates, other attorneys or with your clients, everyone needs to set boundaries regarding availability, time-off, services that can and cannot be provided and even more personal matters, such as social media.

But as too many of us are aware, setting firm boundaries isn’t always easy to do. Although we can choose who we interact with in our personal lives, that isn’t always the case at work. And in a profession that is based on close client relations, it’s easy for the lines of professionalism to blur.

Signs that your boundaries are being violated may include:

  • Increased communication before and after work hours
  • Disruption of your normal office routine
  • Increased level of overall stress in your life
  • Finding yourself personally involved in your client’s issues
  • Changing your billing practices, offering unique financial arrangements or allowing bills to go unpaid

Many consequences can arise from boundaries being crossed, which can include but are not limited to:

  • Increased stress levels
  • Impact on the outcome of the legal matter being addressed
  • Subjecting the attorney to professional liability
  • Subjecting the attorney to discipline
  • Discrediting of the attorney’s professional reputation, his or her firm and/or the legal profession

Of course, it isn’t always the client that oversteps a boundary. Attorneys can be faulted for it too. No well-meaning professional intends for this to happen. But when it’s your professional responsibility to manage the personal matters of your client, it can be easy to forget exactly where you first drew the line.

If you feel boundaries are being crossed on either end, use these strategies to reestablish the bounds of your lawyer-client relationship.

  • Create a structure: Clear and predictable communication, relationship roles and responsibilities should be clarified from the start.
  • Maintain consistency: Establish a routine in how meetings are scheduled and conducted, how and when client communication takes place and how billings are handled.
  • Establish expectations: Inform your client in the beginning what legal proceedings will be like, how much your services costs, what level of involvement will be required and what your role will be throughout the course of a legal matter.
  • Set limitations: Set specific restraints around your personal availability and the roles you can play as a legal expert.

Setting boundaries with clients is one of the most effective forms of self-care a lawyer can engage in. So set clear boundaries early on so both you and your client knows what is expected of one another. In doing so, you will be doing both parties a favor.