For Women in Law By Women in Law

Boundaries: what are they and why do I need them?

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I have never been able to set boundaries. I answer my work phone (these days it is directly linked to my cell phone) almost any time of the day, any day of the week. I answer emails from co-workers and clients on the weekend. Sometimes I do this very clearly to the detriment of my family and I feel guilty, not every time, but often enough.

I may never be able to change this for myself, but as I continue to learn and reflect on life, I am more thoughtful about my own boundaries. Seriously though, I wish I had learned how to draw MY line in the sand earlier in my career.

Recently I came across the article “Know Your Limits” by Jennifer King Lindley.  I like this article because it provides simple and practical advice. It is not necessarily directed at work life, but I believe the same principles apply.

Within the article is the idea of creating your own “Operating Manual”, full of your own policies and procedures for success – I love this idea. You do this, the author suggests, by reflecting on your values and needs. I agree with that notion and I would also say do it early and often because this will definitely help you create a successful and rewarding practice and life.

Establishing these values and needs will allow you to set goalposts or boundaries around what it is that is meaningful to you. It does not mean these values and needs won’t change over the course of time because of course they will. They will evolve as you do.

I would say that when you are creating your manual be realistic so that you do not come to resent yourself or those you both work with and for. It is naïve to exclude the sometimes onerous needs in your practice. For example, you may need to work until midnight occasionally, or on the weekend, and you need to roll with this, but you also need to know that you can put these practice requirements into perspective with your overall plan for life and law.

How you build your “Operation Manual” will depend upon what you determine is important to you and it should be fulsome and include realistic goals around your practice but also values and needs around family and personal time. Find balance in the structure of your manual. For example, you might want to make a concrete plan to always set aside family time after a significant work project that devours the majority of your time for days or weeks. So really, don’t feel guilty when you take that Monday morning off to take your kids to school because that can be allowed for in your manual.

The beauty of YOUR Operating Manual is that it is yours and you get to control the contents so you can feel fulfilled personally and professionally.

Once you have created your own “manual” you need to set the parameters or boundaries to achieve the structure you have established. These will be the guideposts around the requirements set out in the manual. Do this proactively and take responsibility. As the author states, you cannot control other peoples’ actions, but you can control your own actions. You cannot blame the senior partner if you miss your daughter’s dance recital if you didn’t tell him or her beforehand that the deadline interferes with one of the more important moments of your life. I would guess that the vast majority of the time the senior partner will respect your honesty and offer a chance to work around that family commitment. To this very point, the article suggests that you need to be specific and you must ask for what you need. The senior partner is not going to magically know the deadline interferes with the dance recital.

I love that the author, Jennifer King Lindley, focuses on the personal responsibility you must accept when you set your limits and expectations. This, in my view, is the absolute key to success. Boundaries are not about other people they are about you. You must set them, implement them and be consistent with them. If you do, I believe you will find you respect yourself and others more. You will be overall more happy and fulfilled in both your personal and professional life.

I hope you find this article as compelling as I did. Enjoy, and good luck with your manual!

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