Healthy Boundaries

In our work helping lawyers with practice and personal problems, we have noticed that many issues are created by poor boundaries or a complete absence of boundaries. Many of the complaints made by clients to the Law Society can be traced to poor boundaries. In addition, "burnout" in lawyers is almost always due to poor boundaries, an inability to say no to clients, other lawyers and employers when it would be highly appropriate to do so. Lawyers who are successful in life both personally and professionally have one thing in common: they have learned to set good boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are usually learned in childhood, and most functional families have generally healthy boundaries in most areas; but usually there are gaps where poor or unhealthy boundaries exist. In dysfunctional families, bad boundaries are common. Boundaries involve much more than protecting your physical space or the ability to easily say no. A good working definition can be found by asking: "How far can we go with comfort in a relationship?" and answering: "The boundary delineates where I and my physical and psychological space end and where you and yours begin." A good boundary is a limit that promotes integrity.

Practising law means that many boundaries need to be set. Lawyers have much more complex and difficult boundary issues than most people. Obviously, there are boundaries having to do with handling clients' money, but many lawyers get into trouble by saying yes to clients under a false impression of what "client service" is. They take files they haven't really got the time for, or they don't really know the area of law well enough, or they do things that are unethical or inappropriate because the clients want them to do it. A boundary issue may manifest itself in not looking after yourself by making sure you will be paid, or misrepresenting how long a case will take or how expensive a case will be. Yet another manifestation is a lack of civility and respect for other lawyers, which is a form of crashing their psychological boundaries.

Knowing what to allow in and what to keep out means that you have a choice in life and that you will be an active rather than a passive participant in it. Most people have at least some difficulty in setting boundaries. How difficult it is depends on who you are setting the boundary with and what it is about. Setting boundaries around your parents or your boss is much harder than with a telemarketer. In almost all cases your boundary will be tested, sometimes within minutes. If a person is not used to hearing "No" or there is a history of not setting boundaries, testing is their way of asking: 'Are you serious about this?"

To avoid difficulty in learning about healthy boundaries or to avoid subtle distinctions, many people go to the extremes: either they set too few boundaries and become chronic people-pleasers, or they automatically set up too many boundaries and say no almost arbitrarily, resulting in isolation and chronic relationship problems.

Setting healthy and life-affirming boundaries takes skill and the ability to make fine distinctions. It is complicated by the fact that in some legal cultures, poor boundaries are common or even confused with something valuable. Hard work, achievement and striving will add value to your life; however, overworking, overachieving and over-striving usually will result in problems in many areas of your life. Working on a file while your wife is in labour is not an example of dedication; it is an example of dysfunctional boundaries. Healthy boundaries will enhance your relationship with yourself, your body, your health, your friendships, your marriage, your work and your integrity. Poor boundaries can limit your life and cause misery.

It is also useful to know where you have erected defences instead of healthy boundaries. An unwillingness to do or try something new or that could expose you to appearing foolish will unnecessarily limit your experience of life. "Take dance lessons? Are you kidding me?!" is an example of a wall, not a healthy boundary.

Since there are few places where you can learn about healthy boundaries, we have designed a "Boundaries for Lawyers" course, which is approved for Continuing Professional Development credits. We run this course several times a year, and lawyers universally find it helpful and often profound. We focus on an examination of each person's specific boundary areas of weakness, and have a look at where and how that boundary came about and how to change that boundary. We also practise boundary-setting using role plays, which is particularly useful. It is very difficult to begin setting boundaries after a lifetime of not setting them well or at all. It is not easy to tell a friend you can't help them move or tell your boss you can't handle more files. The course is about handling life in a way that protects your time and energy for the things that really matter to you.