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Setting boundaries in Biglaw is such a controversial topic. I have a LOT of thoughts about it because it can be so hard to do. But it can be done – in a way. I’ve recently heard from so many Biglaw associates who are really struggling with setting boundaries, so I wanted to share my tips on how to manage this aspect of life as a Biglaw associate.
First – A Disclaimer
Below I share a bit of my Biglaw background. I felt like it was important to show you the perspective I am coming from, because I recognize not everyone has or had the same Biglaw experience as I did:
- I worked in a corporate group, at the NYC office, of a Vault-20 international law firm for 8 years.
- My clients were investment bankers and/or companies working to structure complex deals, which usually had to get done on a major time-crunch.
- They expected the best from us and it was super time-intensive and demanding.
- The expectations in other practice groups or in smaller markets/cities may be different. In that case, some of the traditional boundary-setting advice (“just say no to that extra assignment”) probably works.
- In my experience, however, that traditional advice does NOT work in Biglaw for those in most practice groups in NYC/DC/Chicago/London/etc.
My advice below is especially targeted at those people who feel like all of this boundary talk floating around on the internet doesn’t apply to them because they could never apply it at their job. I want to give you advice on setting boundaries that actually DOES work, even in tough legal markets and in demanding Biglaw jobs.
I want to make something else really clear – if the traditional boundary-setting advice DOES work for you (for example, your work lends itself to a set schedule and you’re able to sign off at a certain hour at night without having to check in with your team or clients), then that’s awesome. If you can say no to more work when you have too much on your plate, then definitely say no and definitely follow the traditional advice!
And, if that’s the case – you don’t need my tips! My tips below are for the struggling Biglaw associate for whom the traditional advice has NOT worked. I see you – I know you’ve tried it all because I was in your shoes once. I don’t think anyone who is struggling doesn’t at least try to set some boundaries – it’s just that it hasn’t worked yet.
I’m not here to say you shouldn’t try to follow traditional advice, I just want to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for everyone, and I want to offer another perspective and another way of doing things that hopefully DOES work for you. Hope this helps! Now, onto the tips!
Let’s Talk Boundaries in Biglaw!
First, I’m going to go through some common advice about setting boundaries, and then show you why that advice doesn’t work in Biglaw.
Then, I’ll tell you what actually DOES work so you can implement some boundary-setting in your own Biglaw life!
1. “Set strict limits. For example, tell your team that you are unavailable for calls/work after 6pm every night.”
Why doesn’t this work?
- Biglaw is so unpredictable – it is hard to know when work is going to heat up and when a client will request a call/meeting/draft/etc.
- If this happens during your “no contact/no work” window, your team will have to pick up the slack on your behalf. It’s ok if this happens occasionally, but if it’s a daily occurrence, they won’t appreciate it.
- As an associate, if a partner expects you to be available at a certain time, you better be available (unless pre-cleared ahead of time).
What DOES work?
- You CAN set limits and boundaries on your time. But that likely can’t look like an entire chunk of your day, every day, where you can’t be contacted.
- The best way to set some boundaries is to schedule your personal time in your work calendar. Block it out!
- BUT – the key here is to be flexible with your personal time. Absolutely take it, every day, but don’t try to force it during a time where you often have work or calls to join.
- Instead, accept that this time will likely change from day to day.
- So long as you can schedule SOME time for yourself, it’s ok if it’s not at the same time every day. You’re still setting boundaries.
2. “Don’t check your email when on vacation or over the weekend.”
Why doesn’t this work?
- This is highly dependent on who you work with. Do your co-workers (in particular the partners) check their emails during the evenings, on the weekends, and while away? If so, that will probably be your expectation, too.
- In addition to your own firm’s expectations, clients don’t always respect out-of-office messages. Especially if clients don’t set boundaries themselves, they won’t understand why you aren’t responding and will expect you to do so.
What DOES work?
- Never checking in when you are “off” work is difficult. But, you can limit your responsibilities when away.
- The best way to prevent having to work during your time off by taking one key step: Never be the only person on an email chain or with a piece of information. If you do this, you can be confident someone else will cover for you and the client will still get a response.
- And one more thing – always be sure someone on your team has your back. It will save you more than you can imagine.
3. “Just say no to more work or assignments.”
Why doesn’t this work?
- When you say no, a partner hears “I’m not committed to this job.” It doesn’t matter how busy you are – that’s what they hear. This can jeopardize your place in the group and your workflow.
- It is also difficult to say no when everyone else you are working with is billing just as many, if not more, hours as you are. If you say no, that means someone else has to pick up the slack and work harder because you are setting boundaries. It will not go over well. (Sure, you can do this occasionally, but if everyone else is available at 8pm for a call and you never are, that will get noticed.)
What DOES work?
- Instead of outright saying no, the best thing you can do for yourself is to take ownership of your career by figuring out who the best people to work for/with are.
- Who will protect your time? Who will go to bat on your behalf to tell another partner or senior associate that you are too busy to take on additional work?
- The best way to set boundaries and “say no” is to have someone else in your corner who can say no on your behalf when you are too junior to push back yourself.
- Find your support system at the firm and stick with them.
4. “Prepare for pushback on your boundaries – pushback is ok!”
Why doesn’t this work?
- Yes, you will get pushback. And that pushback might make you feel uncomfortable. That’s not the problem. The problem is that pushback might mean you won’t ever get another assignment from that person or group.
- Whether this matters to you depends on what your end goal is:
- If you don’t plan to stay in Biglaw much longer, this could be a good tactic.
- But I’m going to assume that if you are in Biglaw, that you want to stay until you choose when it’s time to leave. If that’s the case, you will have less wiggle room to pushback.
What DOES work?
- Before you put up a blanket boundary of unavailability or just don’t respond to something because it violates your boundaries, talk to your coworkers about your boundaries.
- No, you don’t owe anyone an explanation about why you can’t do something (ever), but giving one can help.
- If your coworker knows you have something important to go to, tell them! You will get less pushback if they understand and see you as a whole person instead of just another replaceable associate.
- The bottom line: while getting pushback might be OK for some, it’s not ideal if you see yourself in Biglaw long-term (or if you want to have full control of when you leave and your exit opportunities).
- Instead of preparing for pushback, prevent it by communicating your boundaries with your team.
What else does work?
I’m going to leave you with 3 more ways you can set boundaries in Biglaw and make more time and space for yourself…
1. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
The best way to set some boundaries when you are overwhelmed with work? Get some of that work off of your plate and onto someone else’s.
- How do you do this? You delegate!
- You can start delegating IMMEDIATELY in Biglaw.
- Even at the most junior level, there is someone you can delegate to (a more junior associate, paralegals, practice assistants, word processing, etc.).
- Delegation is the key to freeing up your schedule and having more time for yourself.
- It’s a skill, and it must be practiced, so try to learn it early in your Biglaw career and practice it often.
2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
When you do plan to be unavailable, communicate your absence well in advance.
- Do this even for seemingly little things. Even if it’s just a night off or a weekend away – communicate your availability to EVERYONE on your team (and to others in your group if it’s a bigger thing like a vacation).
- You want to OVER-communicate your unavailability. That way, nobody can say they didn’t know you were going to be out and expect you to work during your time off.
- Ask your team to put all of their time off into a vacation/OOO calendar that everyone has access to. This will help everyone understand everyone else’s boundaries (*bonus tip: you may see that other people are taking more time off than you are, which can help take away some of the guilt you might feel when taking time off).
- If your team doesn’t already have a system like this in place, take the initiative and create it yourself (or, better yet, delegate the task to a paralegal or secretary to create and manage).
3. Act How You Want to Be Treated
Lastly, follow the Biglaw version of the golden rule.
- This is my best tip, especially if you plan to be in Biglaw for the long-run: when it comes to boundaries, act how you want to be treated.
- If you respect other people’s boundaries, they will be more likely to respect yours.
- You have a real opportunity to create the type of office culture you want to work in.
- For example, let’s say you are working on Sunday because you want to get ahead, but aren’t working on anything urgent.
- If you send an email to a teammate, clearly communicate in the email by when you need a response. If you don’t need to know something ASAP, tell them that. They will appreciate it and will be more likely to show you the same courtesy in return.
- You contribute to your team’s culture, even as a junior associate – so create a culture you want to work in, even if those more senior to you don’t practice similar kindness or respect (yet). They can learn from you, too.
There you have it! Let me know in the comments what boundary-setting tips work for you (especially if you’ve tried all the traditional tips before).
And, remember, setting boundaries in Biglaw is hard. It’s way harder than in many other industries. The standard advice doesn’t always apply and when you hear it over and over again, it will just frustrate you more. You’re not weird or bad at boundaries – setting them in Biglaw is just really, really hard.