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Setting and Maintaining Boundaries with Law Firm Clients

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As a lawyer, you are bound to have a client (or two) who intentionally or inadvertently tests the boundaries of your availability and attentiveness. This client may call, text or email you at all hours. They may expect immediate responses and demand your attention, even when you have commitments you need to meet for other clients. The constant demands on your time and focus disrupt your routine and may even impair the quality of your work. 

You want to do the best for this type of client, and all of your clients. How can you deal with this situation in a polite, systematic manner? How can you be attentive, but also juggle all of your other responsibilities and maintain a work-life balance? These are the questions this blog tries to answer.

Setting Boundaries on Your Availability

Setting boundaries on your availability and attention is one very important factor of a healthy attorney-client relationship. You fill a problem-solving role in the lives of your clients. Naturally, clients want their problems solved as soon and as efficiently as possible. That expectation can lead to them placing intense demands on your time and resources.  

Constant calls and demands for attention can increase stress levels, lead to a lack of focus that impact productivity, and in some cases, raise ethical concerns that can expose attorneys to disciplinary action. 

Additionally, once a client has come to expect a high level of responsiveness from a lawyer, dialing that level back can cause strain in the relationship. Clients who suddenly feel neglected tend to respond by demanding more, not less, and they frequently object to legal bills. This is why setting boundaries and expectations, from the start, is imperative. 

Does this mean clients should be relegated to voicemail?

Absolutely not. As mentioned above, this can lead to negative reactions.

Instead, a cost effective and attainable solution is to partner with a legal call center so clients always receive a live answer, whether it is after-hours, on weekends, or even during a holiday. This option combines the best of both worlds: the boundary is maintained while the client receives live support. This way they will not feel neglected; they will be taken care of by an empathetic and highly-trained intake specialist who will take a message, and you can get back to the client when you are available. 

Characteristics of Healthy Attorney-Client Boundaries

A healthy boundary between a lawyer and client delineates and protects the lawyer's limited, professional role in the client's life as a legal services provider. Characteristics of healthy boundaries you should set and strive for include: 

  • A clear understanding of what the client has hired you to do.
  • The limits of what the client can reasonably expect you to accomplish.
  • Clearly defined milestones, goals, and end-points for the attorney-client relationship.
  • Routine lawyer-client communication via clearly-established, professional channels.
  • Friendly rapport, but not a friendship (at least not one that arose out of the relationship).
  • Limited self-disclosure by you (i.e., the client does not become invested in aspects of your personal life).

Setting Healthy Attorney-Client Boundaries

How do you set those healthy boundaries with a client? Be clear about them from the beginning by: 

  • Explaining your role as a legal services provider and the limits of your availability to clients outside of office hours. With a legal call center acting as an extension of your firm, you can let them know there will always be someone on your staff to answer their questions or take messages and that you can get back to them when you are available. 
  • Explaining to the client when and how you prioritize your time and energies among multiple clients’ demands.
  • Giving examples to your client of situations when you may not respond to them right away and situations in which you will try to reach or respond to them immediately.
  • Avoiding giving the client your personal phone number or access to you through other personal communication channels (i.e., social media direct messaging).
  • If you must give the client access to you via your personal channels, making clear they are for emergencies only and defining what constitutes an emergency.

Maintaining Healthy Attorney-Client Boundaries

Once you have set boundaries, it's also up to you to maintain them. Do this by: 

  • Communicating with your client consistently with the expectations you set at the beginning. This means using the same means of communication, in the same format, on the same schedule, as much as possible. Of course, exigencies arise that call for deviations, but you want clients to develop reasonable expectations for when and how communications with their attorney will happen. 
  • Saying "no" to small early transgressions of boundaries (focusing on one boundary at a time) so that the client understands these are your rules.
  • Sticking to boundaries in all but emergency circumstances, even if the boundary causes you some inconvenience in the short-term.
  • Keeping your relationship on a professional level throughout your initial representation of the client. In time, friendships may develop with repeat clients. That's fine, but it still requires attention to your professional and ethical obligations.
  • Reiterating, as necessary, the scope of your legal services for a client. 
  • In extreme circumstances in which a client refuses to observe the boundaries you have set, ending the attorney-client relationship in a manner consistent with your ethical obligations. 

Create Long-Lasting Attorney-Client Relationships

Boundaries set the frame of expectations. By choosing not to answer calls and texts before and after work hours, or by cutting communication short when you assess that your client's needs do not merit the high-priority of their demands, you help educate your client about how best to utilize and get value from your services. However, you also risk alienating them.

That’s why the best of both worlds is to partner with a legal call center that will answer and respond to your clients calls, day or night. Your clients will feel heard and might actually receive all the answers to their questions without having to disturb your schedule.

Even the most stressed-out clients will find comfort in the predictability and certainty of the boundaries you set as their lawyer. In the long run, that makes for a durable, productive, and lasting attorney-client relationship. 

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