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Personal & Financial

How Lawyers Can Set and Communicate Their Boundaries

Jeena Cho


  • Self-care is essential, involving activities that nourish and increase inner resources. Boundaries establish guidelines for what is acceptable or unacceptable. Lawyers often struggle with this, and time management is a common issue.
  • To set boundaries, you must understand and define your needs, communicate them clearly, and enforce them.
How Lawyers Can Set and Communicate Their Boundaries

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Setting boundaries is a critical part of being a successful lawyer. What do we mean by self-care and boundaries? Self-care refers to activities to nourish yourself and increase your inner resources. It is essential for maintaining a healthy balance in life and preventing burnout. Self-care can also be what you do not do. For example, self-care might be saying “no” to an opportunity that may appeal to you but isn’t right. Boundaries establish guidelines, limits, and personal rules that define what is acceptable or unacceptable. In the book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, the author writes, “Expectations in relationships help you stay mentally and emotionally well. Learning when to say no and when to say yes is also an essential part of feeling comfortable when interacting with others.”

If Setting Boundaries Feels Foreign, You’re in Good Company

I spent much of my career saying “yes” to too many obligations, only to do things I did not want to do, leading to resentment.

Asserting boundaries may be considered confrontational or aggressive—women and people of color get more pushback when setting boundaries or have their boundaries ignored. Law firms should pay close attention to ensure that women and people of color are not penalized for caring for their well-being.

The most common way boundary issues come up for lawyers is time management. Earlier in my career, I incorrectly associated responsiveness with being a “good” lawyer. I responded to client emails and calls almost immediately and made myself available 24-7. Soon, I found myself working around the clock. The harder I worked, the more my clients demanded my energy and time. I would complain bitterly about the 1:00 a.m. client emails, expecting an immediate response, yet I didn’t set and communicate time boundaries to the clients.

Steps for Setting and Communicating Boundaries

Understand and Define Your Needs

You cannot convey your boundaries to others if you do not understand them yourself. This can mean recognizing that you only have the bandwidth to serve on one committee at work or that you do not work on the weekends or after a particular hour in the evening. Your needs may include seeing a therapist regularly or taking time off from work at specific intervals.


According to the book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, there are six types of boundaries—physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, material, and time. The author notes that time is the boundary people struggle with the most. Time boundary violations include calling, texting, or repeatedly emailing for non-emergency situations, expecting you to be always available, and asking you to provide unpaid labor. The best way to communicate your boundaries is to use an “I” statement and keep it simple. For example, “I work 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can expect a response during these hours.” “I am unable to work this weekend.” “I can help you with that, and my hourly rate is X.”

An important note: make sure you are setting boundaries in a way that you can enforce them. For example, “I will not respond to your emails until Monday morning” versus “Please do not send me emails during the weekend.” In the first example, you are in control if the boundary is breached (e.g., you will not respond). In the second example, you attempt to modify the other person’s behavior. It is not a boundary if it requires the other person to take a certain action.

Be Gentle with Yourself

Setting boundaries can be challenging and uncomfortable. Yet, it is necessary for your well-being. The next time you struggle to communicate a boundary, imagine what you would tell your best friend if she were in a similar situation. It is also very helpful to people who will support you in defining and communicating your boundaries.

You Do Not Need Permission to Set Boundaries

It is up to you to decide what self-care looks like for you and to engage in the practices yourself. It is OK to prioritize your well-being, and setting boundaries is a healthy and necessary act of self-care. Your body and your time belong to you. You get to decide what is nourishing. You get to decide what your needs are.