Boundaries are important. In sports, they define the area of play. In real estate, they designate what one owns. And in personal relationships, they mark the emotional and physical limits everyone establishes in order to protect themselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by someone else. In short, personal boundaries mark the place where one individual ends and another begins.
Problems can arise, however, when one or both individuals in any kind of relationship, professional or otherwise, have unhealthy boundaries. For example, if one person always feels bad or guilty whenever he or she has to say no, is unable to stand up for him or herself when treated poorly, or always expects others to automatically take care of his or her needs, boundary violations may be just around the corner.
Why is this important in the context of practicing law? Because when two people enter an attorney-client relationship, the playing field, so to speak, is often unequal. In part, this is due to a power differential. Clients are coming to lawyers with legal problems they are unable to solve, and lawyers have been granted the power and privilege to seek justice on behalf of their clients. Lawyers fight the good fight in order to right the wrong. Of course, most of the time as legal matters are moving in the direction of resolution, the accompanying professional relationships progress normally. The power differential really doesn’t become much of a problem; but a challenge remains nonetheless.
Depending upon the specific needs and behaviors of the both the lawyer and any given client, the type of matter the lawyer is being asked to take on, the degree to which the lawyer and client must work together, and the financial wherewithal of the client, well let’s just say that things can go off the rails rather quickly if there happens to be a boundary violation. It’s about conflicts, most of which are personal conflicts, and such conflicts can have very serious repercussions for the lawyer because many, but not all, boundary violations occur when there is a match between a lawyer’s needs and vulnerabilities and a client’s needs and vulnerabilities. Now I suspect many of you reading this will immediately want to conclude I’m referring to sexual needs. And yes, while sex with clients is a very serious boundary violation that occurs far more often than it should, that’s not what I’m wanting to focus on. I’m more concerned about day to day boundary violations.
Here’s just one example. Lawyer has a great reputation and comes across as someone who is very caring and invested in his clients. He takes on a new divorce client. This client is quite vulnerable due to trying to exit an abusive relationship while also having only limited financial means to try and do so. In truth, the lawyer is quite uncomfortable in having to, and thus unable to, establish defined personal boundaries. So, what at first appears to be a desire to personally invest in his clients is actually a complete inability to place any limits on his availability. As this current matter progresses, this new client ends up leaning on the lawyer quite a bit for emotional support while also remining oblivious to the associated costs of doing so. Finally, after six months, the first bill arrives. The client has no ability to pay the large sum now due and the attorney-client relationship quickly turns caustic.
Things could have played out quite differently had this lawyer been able to see and acknowledge his own inability to establish an accessibility boundary. Had he done so, he could have taken steps to learn how to get there. He could also have anticipated how emotionally vulnerable his new client might be and at the very least let her know how much leaning on him would cost if she ever started to go there. Better yet, he could have tried to help her find a more appropriate support system.
The point I’m trying to make is this. When no one is looking for them, unhealthy boundaries will remain unacknowledged and unaddressed and relationship problems will come into play sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time; and of course, in the context of an attorney-client relationship, the fallout can easily lead to outcomes along the lines of problem clients, lost referrals, collection headaches, disciplinary complaints and even malpractice claims. There is real value in being diligent in your efforts to look for possible signs of unhealthy personal boundaries, both your own and those of your clients, because any failure in this regard is simply a missed opportunity to responsibly and proactively manage the attorney-client relationship.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.