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February 13, 2024 The Legal Angle

Setting Healthy Boundaries Is Self-Care

Julie T. Houth
To maintain your mental health this year, try to set personal and professional boundaries.

To maintain your mental health this year, try to set personal and professional boundaries.

Oliver Strewe via Getty Images

Lawyers are often overworked, and even when we are off the clock, it can be difficult for us to fully shut down work mode. I’ve learned that setting healthy boundaries is an important way to practice self-care and, as a result, be a competent lawyer. I recently participated as a panelist in a CLE program presented by the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division, “How Lawyers Can Say ‘No’ and Set Healthy Boundaries.” A boundary can be the equivalent of saying no to certain things in the legal profession. To me, saying no means prioritizing yourself and your needs. It can be difficult to take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Self-care has become a hot topic in the legal profession, but it is really something we all should take seriously.

When and How to Say No

It took me a long time to realize I could say no. As a newer, younger lawyer and a woman of color, I honestly did not even know this was an option. I learned to say no while already working as a lawyer. I had to be pushed to the limit where I was completely burned out to understand that I had to say no for my own health—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It really took me five years into the profession to say no, and that was just a little over a year ago. I mentioned my journey of prioritizing myself in a past Legal Angle column, “The Power of Goodbye.” From my experience, learning to say no early in the profession will help any lawyer in the long run. You cannot work if your health is suffering, and you will not be able to provide competent work at that point.

Once I realized I had to say no and set boundaries, I thought about how I would go about setting them. I ended up crafting a well-written email about why I needed to say no to an assignment. I explained that, as noted above, I could take on more work, but my focus on my current workload might take a hit because I would be juggling so much more. After I said that, I was still given more work, but the amount was less than originally planned.

It is understandable that it can be difficult to say no as a newer, younger lawyer because you are trying to build your reputation as a competent, hard-working attorney. It is a constant balancing act that I still do now. But you need to remember your worth not only as a lawyer but also as a person. You can only do so much work, specifically good work. Take on only what you know you will be able to do instead of more. This also applies to extracurricular activities such as bar leadership roles. Saying no can be scary, but the alternative is even worse: potentially committing malpractice because you are overworked. Remember that you owe it to yourself and your clients to do good work.

The Balance of Saying No While Being a Good Lawyer

You can still be a team player while saying no so long as the job gets done. If you can defer the work to someone else or delay the work itself, great! There have been many times I’ve said yes to too many things and was stretched thin. I still struggle with this, but I do everything I do because I love it. Only you can know your maximum limit on tasks, activities, and obligations. I’ve learned this the hard way. I did experience burnout, and it’s not pretty. Looking back in regret is not something I often do. I recover by learning and evolving from my decisions. I take it as a lesson. I think things happen for a reason. I initially practiced tax law, then shifted to complex litigation, and now practice maritime law. Every stage of my short legal career has led me to where I am now. That goes for life in general, too.

Sometimes, all you need is a legitimate break from everything. Give yourself some grace and take a break. The work will be there, but remember the deadlines and prioritize. I recommend having some sort of system to keep you organized and on track. I have at least four running calendars, all with alerts for my upcoming events and deadlines. It is important to stay organized in our profession. Your good work will generally speak for itself. Sometimes, your good work gets overlooked, and at that point, you can move on to another, better opportunity.

Boundaries Are Important in All Aspects of Life

Something I’ve heard time and time again while living the lawyer life (and something I’ve said before) is that your reputation is everything. Even when you are no longer billing for work, you will always be looked at as a lawyer. There’s a reason why the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct exist. We are held to a higher standard because we generally know more than the average person. I recommend maintaining a good reputation and good moral character both as a lawyer and outside of lawyer life.

Setting boundaries isn’t necessarily selfish. It’s actually you loving yourself enough to put yourself first. Again, remember that good work should speak for itself and that you don’t need to take on everything all at once. Like many of my fellow young lawyers, I am a first-generation lawyer. During every stage of my educational experience, I applied for multiple scholarships. My parents were refugees, so we didn’t have much. Education is so important to most immigrant families because it’s a way to better yourself and to give yourself and your family financial security and stability. However, it costs a lot. I learned to take every opportunity I could because I knew that my parents were deprived of that option. And that is why it is so ingrained in me to say yes when, at times, we have to say no in our profession. It’s been a slow process, but I am finally learning to say no to things, and you can, too. Let’s all try to be better at setting personal and professional boundaries this year so we can maintain our mental health.

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Julie T. Houth

Thomas Quinn, LLP

Julie T. Houth, Esq., LLM (Taxation), is an associate attorney at Thomas Quinn, LLP, practicing maritime law. She is the Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and managing editor of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s TYL and After the Bar. She is chair of the New York State Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, a member of the ABA Standing Committee of the Law Library of Congress, and a director for the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego.