As a Solo Practitioner, Are You Setting Boundaries?

Setting boundaries with confidence – rather than a cringe 

One of the most common issues that comes up in coaching sessions with lawyers is the absence of work-life balance.  If there is too much work on their plate, or if the number of obligations is too great to fit in (family, health, or recharging), something’s got to give.  And yet, when pushed to see what can be taken off their plate, there is great resistance – and likely a cringe.  Some have an unfounded belief that setting boundaries is a negative thing – maybe they fear being seen as self-centered, lazy, or unapproachable.

Our profession bills in increments of either 6, 15, or 30 minutes and does not reward efficiency for lawyers – other than those progressive enough to work on flat fee, capped fee bases, or value pricing.  It can be very hard to separate the need to be accounting for every moment and the competing need to be efficient and focus on bringing more balance into your professional and personal life.

Boundaries support a marathon of success, not just a sprint

One way to increase efficiency and increase chances of balance is to make sure you are setting boundaries and expectations that honor your personal limits and needs, and the goals and needs of your clients and support staff. Especially for solo practitioners, overcoming this resistance can be pivotal to sustainable success.  After all, you are in this for the long haul and are building a book of business and firm because (presumably) you enjoy your work and want to be doing this for the long haul.

Ask the Right Questions

Especially when you are a new lawyer, it can be very enticing to overpromise or forget to budget in extra time to complete something.  As a new lawyer working on my own clients, I sometimes found myself telling numerous clients “yes, I can get this to you tomorrow,” and then freaking out that I couldn’t get it all done in time.  I wanted to exceed their expectations, and show them good value.  But once I had made the promise of a quick (unrealistic) turn-around, it felt horrible to call them and say it would be another few days.

One time when this happened with a contract drafting project the client told me the delay was fine, and that they hadn’t really been expecting me to get to it that quickly.  In fact, they didn’t need it until the following week.  Her statement made me realize that I wasn’t asking enough questions to really understand the client’s goals and needs, and was making assumptions and creating my own expectations.  So before you get into the habit of overpromising and under-delivering, make sure you are asking the right questions to understand the client’s timelines and expectations.

Send the Right Signals

If you tell clients you don’t work on the weekend, but then respond to their emails on Sunday morning the second you receive it, you are sending mixed signals.  Or if you say nothing about your working hours and respond 24-7 – you are sending a loud and clear signal that you are always available!  Another lesson I learned recently relating to boundaries came from my personal experience as a business owner.  I realized that I often get around to answering emails from service providers on the weekend or at night, because that is when I have the time.  I don’t expect them to answer – I just want to get it off my plate and back on theirs with a response.  I definitely do not get upset if I don’t get a response back until Monday or Tuesday, and in fact would likely feel bad if someone responded back to my non-emergency email on the weekend.

The moral of this lesson is that just because someone is contacting you during off hours does not mean you need to act immediately.  In this day and age we are always plugged in to be accessible to our clients and staff.  To prevent burn-out, it is best to set working hours and boundaries, communicate those with clients (when it makes sense), and let them know that you try to only deviate from your hours for emergencies.  Of course if you get an email on a Sunday communicating a true emergency, you can decide to pick up the phone and call your client.  But if you constantly respond to Sunday morning emails immediately, your clients will begin to think you are OK with working on the weekend and then that is the normal expectation.  Pay attention to what signals you are sending and whether they are in line with your own goals for boundaries and balance.

Let the Client Choose One and You Choose Two

I recently attending a conference and heard a speaker explain his theory on how to prioritize work and set clear expectations.  The most important aspect is that this forces you to involve your client in helping you prioritize work.  When a client calls or comes in with a new matter, he suggests discussing 3 components: timeline, cost, and deliverable.  You can discuss with the client that you need their guidance to dictate which one of the components is most important to them, which will then better help you assess the other two.  For instance, if they say that the most important thing to them is that the work be done tomorrow – then you can discuss what deliverable is realistic to complete in the next 24 hours, and perhaps discuss an increased fee for quick delivery.  Or, they may be more concerned with staying in their budget, and then you can discuss what makes sense for a deliverable and when you can get the work done.

By involving the client in the decision making process, they can begin to understand that you can’t work magic.  Most people don’t work with lawyers on a regular basis, and they may also have no idea how much time the work will take, or that you are juggling 5 matters with pending deadlines.  By having this discussion and understanding in detail what is most important to them, you will have the guidance needed to understand how to prioritize the project, the budget goals for the client, and have a clearer idea of the desired deliverable.  It also removes the mystery from the client’s perspective and allows them to become more effective consumers of legal and other professional services – so it is a win-win.

Setting Boundaries Earns You Your Client’s Respect

When done with purpose, setting boundaries can do the complete opposite of what so many lawyers fear.  Instead of looking lazy or unapproachable, you become less mysterious and easier to work with.  You are also much more likely to under-promise and over-deliver which always leaves a good taste in a client’s mouth about their interactions with you.

Just like children really want rules and boundaries (even when they say they don’t), clients also want to understand the rules of the game of working with you.  I think you might find that the more clear you can be on your own boundaries, and the more consistent and transparent you are about communicating those boundaries, the more respect your clients will have for your time, your value, and your services.

How do you set boundaries?  Has it worked?  Please share.

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®.

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