The Importance of Recognizing Personal Boundaries in the Practice of Law

The Importance of Recognizing Personal Boundaries in the Practice of Law

Boundaries are important. In sports, they define the area of play. In real estate, they designate what one owns. And in personal relationships, they mark the emotional and physical limits everyone establishes in order to protect themselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by someone else. In short, personal boundaries mark the place where one individual ends and another begins.

Problems can arise, however, when one or both individuals in any type of relationship, professional or otherwise, have unhealthy boundaries. For example, if one person always feels bad or guilty whenever they have to say no, are unable to stand up for themselves when treated poorly, or always expects others to automatically take care of their needs, boundary violations may be just around the corner.

Why is this important in the context of practicing law? Because when two people enter an attorney-client relationship, the playing field, so to speak, is often not equal. In part, this is due to a power differential. Clients are coming to lawyers with legal problems they are unable to solve and lawyers have been granted special powers and privileges that enable them to resolve these problems. Lawyers fight the good fight in order to right the wrong. Of course, most of the time as legal matters are moving in the direction of resolution, the accompanying professional relationships progress normally. The power differential really doesn’t become much of a problem; but a challenge remains nonetheless. Depending upon the specific needs and behaviors of both the lawyer and any given client, the type of matter the lawyer is being asked to take on, the degree to which the lawyer and client must work together, and the financial wherewithal of the client, well let’s just say that things can go off the rails rather quickly if there happens to be a boundary violation.

It’s about conflicts, most of which are personal conflicts, and such conflicts can have serious repercussions for the lawyer. Many, but not all, boundary violations occur when there is a match between a lawyer’s needs and vulnerabilities and a client’s needs and vulnerabilities. One such obvious boundary violation that happens more often than it should is a sexual boundary violation between a lawyer and client. However that’s not what I’m wanting to focus on here. I’m more concerned about day-to-day boundary violations.

Here’s just one example. Lawyer has a great reputation and comes across as someone who is very caring and invested in his clients. He takes on a new divorce client. This client is quite vulnerable due to trying to exit an abusive relationship while also having only limited financial means to try and do so. In truth, the lawyer is quite uncomfortable in having to — and thus unable to — establish defined personal boundaries. So, what at first appears to be a desire by this lawyer to personally invest in his client is actually his complete inability to place any limits on his availability. As this current matter progresses, this new client ends up leaning on the lawyer quite a bit for emotional support while also remaining oblivious to the associated costs of doing so. Finally, after six months, the first bill arrives. The client has no ability to pay the large sum now due and the attorney-client relationship quickly turns caustic.

Things could have played out quite differently had this lawyer been able to see and acknowledge his own inability to establish an accessibility boundary. Had he done so, he could have taken steps to learn how to get there. He could also have anticipated how emotionally vulnerable his new client might be and at the very least let her know how much leaning on him would cost if she ever started to go there. Better yet, he could have tried to help her find a more appropriate support system.

The point I’m trying to make is this. When no one is looking for them, unhealthy boundaries will remain unacknowledged and unaddressed and relationship problems will come into play sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time; and of course, in the context of an attorney-client relationship, the fallout can easily lead to outcomes along the lines of problem clients, lost referrals, collection headaches, disciplinary complaints and even malpractice claims. There is real value in being diligent in your efforts to look for possible signs of unhealthy personal boundaries, both your own and those of your clients, because any failure in this regard is simply a missed opportunity to responsibly and proactively manage the attorney-client relationship.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.