For a busy lawyer, there’s never enough of it. Time pressure is one of the most significant factors causing lawyers to ‘burn-out’ at work. Heavy workloads, crucial deadlines, client expectations, and the long hours put in to stay on top of these things can easily lead to dissatisfaction, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

It can be hard to shake the constant feeling of ‘so much to do, so little time’. But there are ways you can do it.

I have previously written about using mindfulness and resilience to assist in managing stress:

In this post, however, I will detail another way to overcome stress from time pressures: to create time boundaries. Introduced and maintained properly, these will really improve your performance and ability to manage stress.

Resistance to creating time boundaries

It is undeniable that creating boundaries at work can be tricky. When I am coaching clients on time management, they are typically concerned about:

  • Getting fired
  • Being perceived as a ‘snowflake’
  • Clients going elsewhere because they won’t have access 24/7 to their lawyer

And last but not least, imposing time boundaries is one thing, but you then have to stick to them. This is vital, because when you respect your work boundaries, others typically will. You are teaching your work colleagues, bosses, staff and clients how to treat you.

Preparing the foundations of your boundaries

Before you set boundaries, take time to establish what’s important to you. Think about the following four areas:

1. The number of hours you’ll work.

2. Under what circumstances and conditions you would work overtime.

3. How you will handle emails or work phone calls outside of office hours.

4. Which people, if any, you would provide with your personal mobile phone number.

In order to achieve a balance which works for you – you need to look at the week or month as a whole and make a plan. You should decide what action you need or want to take in order to achieve that balance and reduce stress.

For example, is running your passion? If so, do you want to do this on a daily basis as a way of life or do you have a specific goal in mind, such as training for a half marathon?

Assessing your objectives in this way allows you to manage your boundaries appropriately.  You will know whether you need to arrange a short or long-term boundary to accommodate this aspect of your life. It can also inform the type of boundary you need. For example, you may want a set time that you finish each day to allow for your objective, or maybe you will only need this for three days each week.

Setting priorities may also help. Looking at your goals for de-stressing and dividing them into what you ‘need’ and what you ‘want’ may provide some flexibility when it comes to negotiating your new boundaries with your firm.

Overtime and out-of-hours boundaries

Priorities are also important when considering the ‘overtime’ you would be willing to work. Having defined boundaries regarding overtime provides clarity to you and your organisation. Continuing the ‘running goals’ example above, you might say that two evenings are available for overtime in certain situations – perhaps when there is a major transaction or litigation matter which requires overtime work to ensure deadlines are met.

Other matters may inform your priorities, such as a good work/life balance in general. You might make it clear to your employers that weekends are out of bounds for overtime work, but that you would be willing to work up to a certain time on weekdays (should the need arise). Ideally, the more specific and well-defined your boundaries are, the better. The JLD’s 2019 survey on resilience and wellbeingshowed that the most frequent consequence of work-related stress was disrupted sleep. So setting appropriate time boundaries may assist you to develop better sleep habits.

This discussion will enable you to explore what is the expectation or the ‘norm’ for that firm, that department for out-of-hours work at this point in time. This should inform your negotiation approach not your fallback position.

Tackling those pesky emails and phone calls when out of the office.

Of course, overtime at the office, isn’t the whole picture for out-of-hours work. Checking work emails outside of office hours can greatly undermine attempts to set a healthier work/life balance. A YouGov survey last year found that, out of just over 1600 workers, 60% of them checked their work emails whilst on holiday. Yet 80% said that they would rather switch off completely!  

When setting your boundaries, you may say that any emails or phone calls on deadline matters are taken up to 7.00pm, or you will respond to work emails between 9.00pm and 9.30pm (for example, once the children have gone to bed) and that your work phone will be switched off after this time. As the above survey results indicate, this will undoubtedly take discipline!

You might want to set your boundaries more heavily in favour of your personal/family life. Time can never be replaced. One way is to indicate your expectations that extra availability (such as that described above) will be the exception rather than the norm. Again, establishing what you mean by the ‘norm’ will provide clarity when setting your boundaries.

Prepare for your boundaries to be infringed

It is not that people necessarily go out of their way to contravene your boundaries, but life has a habit of affecting even the best-laid plans. When other people are under pressure, it is easy for them to forget the boundaries you have set and to expect more from you. It is important that you have a strategy for handling these situations.

Try to anticipate the situations which may arise and consider how you can enforce your boundaries in an assertive way. You may have different approaches for clients, bosses and colleagues.

For instance, imagine your boss emails you on Saturday, how are you going to handle it?

  • Will you even look at it? After all, you have communicated your boundary to them.
  • Will you reply right away?
  • Will you respond on Monday morning, apologise and give an excuse? Perhaps saying you were with your family?

Building boundaries takes time and practice. Therefore think of infringements as something instructive, and an opportunity to gain insight and improve on your boundary-setting. This will keep you in a resourceful state in which to respond.

However, if your work environment is constantly operating as though your boundaries do not, or should not, exist – and you don’t see any chance of this attitude improving – it’s time to start thinking about leaving. An employer’s respect for boundaries is a good indication of how much they value their employees.

Whilst I focused on time boundaries in this blog, the underlying principles are the same for other kinds of boundary you may want to set.  These might be ones with a work colleague about what is acceptable communication and what is not.

If creating boundaries is something that you are struggling with at the moment, or you don’t know how to sayNo’ politely and firmly, coaching may be the answer for you. Telephone me for a friendly, no-pressure chat on 07921540039 to discuss further.

YCFL delivers strategic coaching, leadership, management and interpersonal skills training for the legal profession. Since 2003 Ann has trained nearly 7000 lawyers in leadership, management, business and interpersonal skills. She has also trained with the Coaching Academy and holds a H.N.L.P. certificate in coaching as well as being an N.L.P. Master Practitioner. She is a member of the Professional Speaking Association and Professional Speakers Academy.


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