Are You Setting Boundaries with Your Clients?

Professional boundaries define effective and appropriate interaction between an attorney and the client.  Boundaries exist to protect both parties.  No conscientious professional sets out to violate the standards of professional relationships with clients.  However, violations can happen, even to those that are dedicated, moral and highly responsible in the overall conduct of their practice.  As you know, failure to set healthy boundaries with clients can lead to RPC violations on the topics of fees, communication, and other ethical responsibilities.


Signs that you may be at Risk of Violating Boundaries

    • Altering the established management of your communication:  either more or less than your customary frequency of phone calls, written correspondence, emails and/or texts;
    • Disruption of your normal office routine;
    • Changing your billing practices: unique financial arrangements, allowing bills to go unpaid;
    • Providing “special treatment”:  meeting at odd hours, providing your home phone number, allowing “drop in” appointments (if that is not your customary practice), agreeing to unusual requests;
    • Changing how you dress or act, inconsistency in your practice or relationship style, or behaving in ways that suggest a personal relationship;
    • Increased level of overall stress in your life, which can result in increased vulnerability to boundary violations;
      Finding yourself ‘drawn in’ and personally involved in your client’s issues;
    • Avoiding discussion of unrealistic or inappropriate client attitudes and/or perceptions of you and the attorney-client relationship;
    • Unusual or out-of-proportion feelings or reactions toward your client, or thinking about a client in a personal or emotional way.


Possible Consequences of Boundary Violations 

    • Reinforcement of unhealthy boundaries in the client, leading to continuing or increased problematic behavior;
    • Increased stress levels (and their consequences),  and risk of burnout as a result of difficult or challenging client behavior;
    • Impact on the outcome of the legal matter being addressed;
    • Subjecting the attorney to professional discipline,  or civil or criminal liability;
    • Discrediting of the attorney’s professional reputation, his or her firm and/or the legal profession


Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries with clients is one of the most effective forms of self-care a lawyer can engage in.  Use these strategies to help set boundaries:

    • Increase Structure.  Clear and predictable communication, relationship roles and responsibilities should be clarified from the outset.
    • Maintain consistency.  Keep predictability a priority in how meetings are scheduled and conducted, client communication takes place, billings are handled and tasks are assigned. 
    • Manage Expectations.  It may be necessary to anticipate and repeat for the client what legal proceedings will be like, the cost of the work, what tasks and level of involvement will be required, and what your role will be during the course of a legal matter. 
    • Set Limits.  Areas such as your personal availability, your professional role as the legal expert and the extent of your involvement may need to be clearly outlined.