Legal Practice

Know Your Limits: Setting Boundaries to Better Serve Clients

A few weeks ago when we discussed the train wreck interview and the need to manage clients, a point was raised about paternalism. And honestly yeah, there is a such a problem with attorneys thinking that managing clients means they know what’s best in all aspects of a client’s life. And in certain segments of the legal industry, primarily legal aids and in sectors where we worked with marginalized communities, there is a risk of falling into a paternalistic behavior.

We may often hear of this when we’re critiquing non-profits whose leaderships tend to not look like the community they represent. But I have seen situations with attorneys of color who not only blur the lines in decision-making for clients, but also interject themselves in other issues that don’t relate to the legal case. I’m sure this is done out of great empathy, especially for clients that look like they could be family. But I caution letting this behavior become the norm in your practice because it could backfire—not just on you and your own career, but it can also cause client harm.

It can backfire on you because you can become overly invested in a case where you lose your ability to be objective, which is a disservice to the client; you could push yourself to a place where you blur ethical lines; and you could prioritize the case of the client you like over others, failing those other clients. And it can harm the client beyond their case if they become reliant on you to resolve other issues rather than feeling empowered to resolve (non-legal) issues on their own.

Before diving in on how to avoid this, what this ultimately is about is boundary setting. Accepting the boundaries clients set on how their case proceeds and setting boundaries on yourself on what you can/can’t do for a client. Boundary setting is vital. You have to become well-versed and comfortable doing it because clients can be pushy and if you’re not careful they can push you to do the wrong thing. “Not my clients!” you’re thinking and sure, maybe not the clients you currently represent. But you never know where your career will lead and there are plenty of examples of situations where lawyers got caught in the undercurrent when clients pushed them to do the wrong thing. Setting boundaries now, when you’re still fresh and even with “easy” clients, will help when you face a more challenging situation.

Ok so how do you know when things are getting questionable and how do you resolve it?

One. Remember you are providing a service. One side of this coin is that we can become cocky and think we know best. Reminding yourself that you are actually simply providing a service can help recalibrate the fact that it’s the client—not you—who determines the path of the case. This reminder is also helpful for the other side when we are too acquiescent. Reminding yourself that you’re providing a service related to a legal matter and need to limit your scope and attention to the service you are providing.

Two. Mitigate what you can, but do so fairly. First, it’s important to raise potential issues/consequences in a timely manner so that if a client makes a decision you disagree with you are confident that they are aware of the risks they are taking. Of course, there will be times where clients is facing barriers that doesn’t allow them to help their case. For example, often some clients couldn’t afford to take the bus to come down to my office. In those cases, the office had spare bus cards we could send clients. I did that frequently and had no qualms about it because I could do so with any client that needed it. But in cases that were more dire, like a client says they had no food? What can you do? I know of attorneys that would bring food to the client and that is the most human and kind response. But what happens next week? And the week after that? What happens if two more clients say they need food? Is this a cost you can spare? Should you spare it? Is that a fair burden to place on you? Or is the better approach to direct client to potential resources that may address the root issue. A good gauge is that if you can’t afford to do something outside the legal scope of your case with every client you should ask if you are really the best person to address this issue.

And mitigation here is important not just for the one client or for you, but for your entire case load—-when you have a client taking away your time and attention beyond their normal case that is time and attention you are not giving other clients who are just as worthy of your skills.

Three. Know your limits. We often enter the legal field because we want to right some wrongs—maybe even wrongs we experienced. And there are plenty of attorneys who do that successfully. Actually, I experienced inter-family violence growing up and my main work has centered on gender-based violence. But it only works if you recognize when and how a case is pushing you outside of what is normal. And it works best if you recognize that you could get triggered by certain cases and identify ways to address and cope with those triggers. That may mean you avoid those types of cases or it means you have steady outlets and resources to address what you’re feeling. Either is an appropriate approach but it starts by being aware of what sets you off.

Sometimes this comes off harsher than I intend. I swear I’m not a robot! I cared for my clients and felt closeness to some. But it wouldn’t be fair to use them to make myself feel better or to take away their autonomy because I felt like I knew best. It is a sacred duty to serve and counsel clients, especially those who are normally not afforded good counsel. That is why it’s key we maintain good boundaries even when (or especially when) we feel a close connection to the client.


One Comment

  • Blake Moore

    This is such a difficult balance to achieve. On the hand, you want to provide the best possible solution, and often it feels like that means convincing the client of that solution. But on the other hand, the client ultimately has to be the one to make that decision, and, as you said, we provide a service to the clients! We ultimately answer to our clients, not the other way around.