Blurred Lines: The Importance of Client Boundaries

I am a family lawyer.  Within the first twenty minutes of an initial conversation with a client, he has usually discussed more intimate details with the complete stranger across the table from him than he has discussed with his own spouse during their entire marriage. This new client believes his attorney is supposed to give guidance on how to “handle” this tumultuous and uncertain time in his life.  His attorney is supposed to help him answer all of the questions, including how to respond to the late night text message that he is certain was sent to create a new problem in his already troubled communication with his wife. His attorney is supposed to advocate for him and guide him every step of the way.

If I do a poor job of establishing effective boundaries at the outset of the lawyer-client relationship then I quickly become the one getting late night texts from a troubled client asking questions about how this latest voicemail will affect him in Court. Of course, this is a question that could have waited until our office meeting, already scheduled for the following week, but I provided my cellphone number, and I am so helpful in such a panicked time, why not go ahead and answer the question now, at 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night? I am most certainly waiting by my phone only dying to figure out how I can help solve this problem.

In this age of constant communication and instant gratification, it is more difficult than ever to ignore the steady barrage texts, voicemails, and emails that populate our phones.  Whether it’s a frantic client who is desperate for reassurance or a stage-five clinger who “needs” me to be part of every emotional blip on his radar, it gets difficult to know when and where to the draw the line with clients.

I became a lawyer to help people and I’m good at putting client’s fears and anxieties to rest. I am the first to admit, I love to be needed, but at what price?  What am I giving up by feeling the need to immediately respond to every whimper of a concern from my clients?  How much of my precious personal and family time is being consumed by clients with unrealistic expectations for attorney-client contact and unfettered access to me at nights and on weekends? Unhealthy, codependent relationships with clients are not only bad for clients  (because let’s face it, you can’t really be their support system), they are also bad for us lawyers, who often already feel like we are running at a deficit when it comes to spending time with our families, living our lives, and managing our stress.

Recently, a client told me that he would miss “talking to me” upon the finalization of his divorce. It was almost as if he was uncertain of how he was going to get through the next phase in his life without first discussing it with me.  For a minute, I was so happy that I was going to be missed…but the longer I sat and thought about it, the more concerned I became.  Why would he “miss” talking to me?  I know I’m cute and charming and all, but in what world  should any client ever miss talking to their lawyer? I mean, if nothing else, they are paying us to be talking to them, right?  Lawyers are not a substitute for a support system, that’s not our job, but somehow, this client had become too dependent on me and I knew immediately it was, at least, in part, my fault. Call it over-eagerness, a need to please, or a failure to create appropriate boundaries, either way I had allowed our lawyer-client relationship to morph into something more personal and something less beneficial to the client.

Remember Lucy Kelson? She was the character Sandra Bullock played opposite Hugh Grant’s George Wade in the 2002 movie Two Weeks Notice. She was the Harvard educated attorney who never said “no” to her demanding, powerful (and occasionally charming) client. She was always available. Always. Like many of us, Lucy was a Type-A, do-gooder with a penchant for over-committing to her work, her job, and her client. Her eagerness to do a good job and her fondness for being needed kept her from setting appropriate boundaries for her client. She just kept bending her life to attend to his ever-growing needs. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s time to start thinking about just how available you want to be and then figure out how to best communicate those expectations to your clients. My advice: do it early and do it often. It’s never too soon to start taking control of your client relationships. Your life will thank you for it.

Brook Stuntebeck

Brook Stuntebeck is a graduate of Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta, Georgia. A native of Georgia, Brook is licensed in both Texas and her home state and practices at KoonsFuller in Denton, Texas.

She has been named Texas Monthly Magazine’s “Rising Star” and has practiced exclusively family law since she relocated to Texas. As a wife and proud mother of two little girls, Brook has compassion for her clients and realizes that her advocacy for the details is extremely important. She worked as a project manager for a Fortune 500 company prior to and during law school, and she has found attention to detail is often the key to success in family law matters.

Brook Stuntebeck is a leader among young lawyers in both Denton County and state wide. She is the District #11 Representative for Texas Young Lawyer Association (TYLA) for the 2013-2015 term, and she was the 2012- 2013 president of the Denton County Young Lawyers Association.

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  19. I do family law as well, and much to the horror of some of my colleagues, I give my cell phone number to each of my clients. Its really not a problem for me. When I write my cell number on the back of my business card, I take the opportunity to give this little speech, “I am an overpaid and under-qualified counselor. Do not use me in that capacity. Use me to advocate for your in court and in negotiations. If my phone rings or I receive a text message, I’ll charge you a 1/4 hour. That’s not because I don’t like you or don’t want to talk to you. That’s because I want to use your money to accomplish your legal goals.” While it’s a bit blunt, I find that clients appreciate that bottom line approach with boundaries.

  20. Brook: Good article. I serve as outside counsel for many oilfield service companies here in West Texas and I find myself frequently fielding client phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night, not to mention weekends. Here in the Permian Basin, the oil and gas industry is a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week operation–it seriously never stops–and this boom is something else. The legal problems are seriously endless when you think that at any given well-site, there might be 50 different oilfield service companies all engaged in activities subject to governmental regulation and brimming with potential contract and tort problems. Adding to the drama is the fact that everyone, and I mean everyone, expects the boom to be a limited-time engagement, therefore all legal problems seem like emergencies in the oilfield. I completely relate to your dilemma–I mean, if my clients view their issues as emergencies, shouldn’t I? I still sometimes struggle with setting appropriate boundaries, especially with clients that I’ve personally grown and nurtured into great clients of the firm. Like you, I love to be needed and similarly, I love to be able to provide quick and correct advice for my clients, especially those that make the call for my advice before they do something tragically risky or unwise. I’ve found that slowing myself down and responding in a prompt but not “on-call” sort of way really helps communicate realistic expectations to my clients and salvages my oh so precious personal time.

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