creating client boundaries, how to create client boundaries, how to make a boundary with clients, be a better lawyer, Dina Cataldo

#294: Creating Client Boundaries

Resentful of client work?

Think your clients aren't respecting you?

It may be because you need to set a boundary.

But boundaries can be confusing.

Not everything we think needs a boundary actually needs one.

In this episode of Be a Better Lawyer Podcast, you'll learn:

👉 what a boundary is (and isn't)

👉 how to set client boundaries and expectations

👉 what to ask yourself to uncover hidden areas where you're not setting expectations with your clients in your practice

When you implement what you learn in this episode, you'll love your practice 100% more, get back your peace of mind, more time, and even more money.

Listen in to love your life and your law practice more. And when you're done, tell me in the comments one takeaway you got from this episode.


Boundary Episodes


Money Mindset

Mindset Essentials


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Setting Client Boundaries

I’ve been wanting to do an episode on creating boundaries with clients for so long.

I see a lot of lawyers struggle with creating boundaries with clients NOT because they don’t know how to create a boundary but because it feels so hard.

They’re afraid they’ll lose a client or that they won’t like them anymore.

Because it feels so hard to create a boundary, it leads them to feel resentful that they’re doing things they don’t necessarily want to do and defensive like they’re going to war with their clients.

You and your clients are not on opposing sides.

But in the moment it can feel like you’re at odds with them.

If you’re experiencing this, what’s actually happening is you’re at war with yourself.

You’re acting against yourself.

You’re acting against what you truly want and what you know is right for you.

It makes sense that you’d feel annoyed, angry, frustrated and even resentful.

You’re acting in a way that minimizes the value of what you want and says, “The client matters more than I do.”

That is never true.

What you want matters.

You will need to balance your interest with their interests, but if you want to love your life and law practice, you must harmonize these.

So in this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to set a boundary
  • how to set expectations for your clients in a calm grounded way that feels good,
  • You’ll get questions to ask yourself, so you can find where you need to set better client expectations
  • you’ll learn to navigate uncomfortable feelings that come up any time you have a difficult conversation

Yes, you may feel uncomfortable doing this at first, but it will feel hands down better than the old way of doing things.

Boundaries are something a lot of people think they need to fight for.

When you think that, it puts you on the defensive. Boundaries are not a tool of war. It’s simply a tool to help you create the life you want and continue to help people without burning out.

A boundary is simply a decision you make about what’s acceptable in your life and in your practice.

I you haven’t been setting them, it will feel difficult at first, so don’t be put off by how uncomfortable you feel at first. It’s important you allow the discomfort and do it anyway to form a new habit.

A habit that makes boundaries and setting expectations second nature to you.

At the very basic level, a boundary is knowing what you want, communicating what you want, knowing what you will do it that boundary is not adhered to, and then if what you want isn’t adhered to, you follow through on that consequence.

A basic example is having a client who is yelling at you on the phone. You tell them that you understand they’re upset, but if they continue to yell at you on the phone that you’ll need to discontinue the conversation and no longer represent them. Then if they continue to yell at you, then you tell them, thank you, I’ll confirm with the court a date to discontinue representation.

That’s really it.

But that’s not how most people see it, and I get it.

So I want to approach this conversation a bit differently.

The word “boundary” sounds like you’re fencing someone off. As if you’re on opposite sides of a wall. So I’m going to call boundaries “creating client expectations.”

I like that better.

Yes, technically the definitions of boundary and expectation are different, but I want to share something with you:

Boundaries are commonly talked of like a protective measure.

But if you know what you want and communicate it clearly from the start, you don’t need to put up walls. You simply set up expectations in advance and you follow through with what you say you’re going to do.

Most things that lawyers come to me with where they tell me they have a client boundary issue aren’t boundary issues at all. They’re client expectation issues.

Communication is key. We can’t expect that the client knows what you need or is going to behave the way you want them to. You must communicate what it is you’re willing to do and that you will not do.

This sets the stage for a successful relationship with anyone you meet.

Thinking of boundaries in terms of creating client expectations also puts you in the driver’s seat. You’re in charge of creating the client experience, and you’re leading the relationship.

I spoke about this in episode 277: Becoming a Powerful Creator in Your Life. I’ll link to that in the show notes.

Your clients are looking to you to help them and advise them.

They don’t have to take your advice; they’ve hired you to hear your perspective.

But you can create client expectations from the very beginning of your relationship, which will make your life AND their lives easier.

They want to have structure too. You letting go of the steering wheel and just letting things happen doesn’t feel good to them either. You may think you’re doing them a kindness, but you’re not.

Think about when you join a program or you’re in a class. You like to know what to expect and be given some guidelines around what’s going to happen.

It feels safe. You know you’re not wasting your time.

When you set out the expectations you have of how the relationship will go with a client, you are giving them a roadmap to follow.

For example,

If you have an estate planning practice, you can set up your systems in a way where you talk specifically about how you handle matters.

  1. The fee is X dollars for XYZ documents. That includes one revision and one review cal, etc.
  2. After this consult, I’m going to create a file and have your documents prepared by X date.
  3. Right now, we’re going to set up a signing date that works for us both for some time after the documents are prepared.
  4. My assistant will take your full retainer fee up front in the lobby when you leave my office. That money will go into a separate account.
  5. Once I’ve completed your documents, then the funds will be released.
  6. If for some reason you don’t come in for the signing on the date we agree upon, we’ll follow up with you, but if we don’t hear from you within 30 days then your file will go into our closed documents until you contact us.
  7. If you have additional revisions or want to have further discussion, then that will be billed at my hourly fee of X that would be paid before the signing.

This is very straight forward and sets forth the expectations you have for how the relationship will go.

If you don’t lay out your expectations up front, then they won’t know what is required and why it’s required and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

When you communicate in a straightforward way, it creates a feeling of safety.

This is something I aspire to do in my coaching program.

I want my clients to know that I have resources for them and that they will get what they need to achieve the result they’re looking for. That they have a step-by-step plan already in place to help them get the results they’re looking for without having to do heavy lifting.

It helps create a foundation for a relationship where they feel taken care of.

You want your clients to feel taken care of too, right?

But lawyers are afraid of communicating clearly because they don’t want to scare someone off. Instead they feel frustrated that their clients aren’t doing what they think they should be doing.

I want you to ask yourself a question:

What is it costing you NOT to communicate clearly?

Your peace of mind? Are you feeling resentful and annoyed at your clients instead of doing the work you’re being paid for?

Your time? Are you procrastinating on doing client work because you’re upset with them or resentful that they aren’t behaving the way you think they “should” be behaving?

Money? Are you failing to communicate your fees up front or maybe you’re doing work outside the scope of the contract because you feel uncomfortable charging them because you haven’t taken the time to communicate with them up front?

Communicating what you want is something you can do for your clients AND yourself.

You’ll get your peace of mind back, your time back, and you’ll be paid the value of your services.

There are 5 aspects to creating client expectations and/or boundary:

  1. Know what you want
  2. Know what you will do if the other person doesn’t follow through
  3. Communicate what you want and what will happen if your client doesn’t follow through
  4. Follow through with what you communicated
  5. Have your back no matter what

I’m going to give you three common examples of where I see client expectation issues come up. I’ll apply these five steps in these examples, but you can apply this to anywhere you’re struggling with setting client expectations.

Before I do, I want to clear some things up because a lot of times lawyers will come to me saying they have a client boundary issue when really it’s not that at all.

For example, if a client emails you asking when their documents will be done, and you feel anxious because now you think that client is pressuring you to get the work done, that’s not a boundary issue.

They’re just asking you a question. And you’re making that question mean that they’re pressuring you to get it done faster and that now you have to get it done immediately. That’s a mind management problem not a boundary problem.

Or if a client gets a draft of something you wrote and writes on it with questions and comments and input, and you feel angry and disrespected, that’s not a boundary issue.

They’re just sharing their opinion. And you’re making their opinion mean that they are disrespecting you by not taking your advice. That’s a mind management problem not a boundary problem.

Or if a client doesn’t want to take your advice, and you feel angry and disrespected, that’s not a boundary issue.

They’re simply exercising their right to decide whether they want to take your advice or not. And you’re making their decision mean they wasted your time even though they paid you for your opinion. That’s a mind management problem, not a boundary problem.

We’ve done a lot of episodes on mind management, but it all starts with you just observing how you’re reacting in these situations. Go to the show notes for a few episodes on Mindset to help you out here.

(Mindset Essentials Ep 274 and 275)

Where I see common issues arise in terms of setting client expectations are:

  1. Availability – meaning how available you are to your clients
  2. Money – meaning how you communicate about money
  3. Client behavior – meaning how clients behave towards you

First let’s talk availability.

This is one area where it becomes clear that boundaries — or setting client expectations — are all about how clearly you’re thinking about what you want big picture.

I had a client with her own firm who gave her cell phone to a client because in the moment, she was in a hurry to get out of the office and thought it would get him off the phone short-term.

It did.

But because she made that decision from frustration and feeling scattered, she made a decision that lifted pressure off her short term but communicated to the client in her actions that she would talk to him any time, so feel free to call on the cell phone in the middle of my time off.

So this client called her multiple times on the week-end, and she didn’t want to work on her week-end.

The client didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t ignoring her boundaries. She communicated that she didn’t have any boundaries.

This situation really unraveled with step one:

  1. Know what you want – she didn’t really want to handle client calls outside her work hours, but she didn’t communicate this nor did she tell the client that this was a matter that she would handle as soon as she was back in the office.

If she had been clear about what she wanted and communicated it — even if she felt uncomfortable — then this wouldn’t have played out like it did.

It’s this first step that we need to have clarity on.

Know what you want.

A great question to ask yourself here is where are you feeling resentful or angry with your clients? This will tell you what you want.

Why do you think you feel that way?

How do you think they should be behaving?

What might you need to communicate to them?

What are your fears (if any) around communicating this to them?

What are the benefits of communicating this to them?

A second area where I see client expectations not set up ahead of time is when it comes to money.

Money mindset can be a challenge for a lot of lawyers. I’ll link to some of my past money mindset episodes in the show notes for you if you can relate.

When you don’t address those mindset challenges, you may find yourself creating little messes in your practice because you’re not setting up client expectations.

For example, you may not communicate the scope of your agreement, and when you do work outside what YOU thought would be in the agreement, you may not charge for it.

I see this happen most often when a lawyer believes that if she calls up the client and tells them there’s additional work to be done and that there’s a fee for it, that:

  1. “They’ll think I’m incompetent”
  2. “They’ll think I’m trying to pull one over on them”
  3. “I should have anticipated this work”

These thoughts — this mindset — prevents them from getting paid their value. It also prevents them from solving the problem in the first place: outlining what they want, and learning how to communicate those wants effectively in the consult.

When I ask my clients whether they really think their clients believe they’re incompetent if they call them up and say XYZ needs to be done before they can complete the work, they don’t truly believe their client thinks they’re incompetent. Their client trusts them and wouldn’t think that they’re lying about what needs to get done.

So instead of believing thought like these, get curious. Yeah, maybe you could have anticipated the work, but you don’t have to beat yourself up. Instead, ask yourself what you want. Then make a checklist for your consult so you ensure you address it and put a term in your contract.

When we get out of the mind drama, the solutions become simple.

The third area where I see client boundary issues come up is when attorneys don’t set expectations for how they want to be treated.

Every so often, you may get a client who is out of the norm.

They don’t speak respectfully to you or they’re downright abusive.

So let’s walk through it.

  1. how do you want to be spoken to?

Pay close attention to how your clients and potential clients speak to you early on in your relationship. Pretty sure this is something more women experience than men in every profession, so it’s worth noting.

There are some people who simply don’t take women seriously as attorneys.

I’m 5’2” and I used to prosecute prison cases.

I remember being in a prison where I was checking out the scene of a prisoner on prisoner attempted murder, and a correctional officer I needed to testify in my case — who was about 6’2” — wasn’t taking a case seriously or said something flippant, and I said something pretty confrontational like, “No, we don’t talk like that. You will take this case seriously and professionally.” Something like that. He shut his mouth and the investigator I was with – well, whatever I said, his jaw dropped. And the correctional officer knew he was in the wrong.

I don’t take crap from people.

When you don’t take crap from people and you communicate what you want immediately, you’ll stop attracting crap.

Just because I don’t take crap doesn’t mean I don’t also feel uncomfortable. But usually it’s after the fact.

I speak up faster than my body can feel it because I’ve practiced it so much.

So let’s move on to the rest of the steps:

  1. So ask yourself, if they don’t communicate in that way with you, what will you do? Hang up the phone? Only respond to essential emails? Request to be taken off the case? Decide ahead of time.
  1. Then communicate this to them. Yes. This may feel uncomfortable. Do it anyway.
  1. The very next time they behave disrespectfully, let them know that you will be hanging up now or whatever other consequence you communicated. It’s important that you follow through the very first time, or they won’t believe you.
  1. Have your back through this process no matter what happens. No matter what happens — whatever the result — you will be okay. Remind yourself that you will figure out how to move forward. I did an episode on second-guessing yourself last week and that may be helpful if you notice yourself second-guessing yourself.

This takes practice. As a prosecutor you’re thrown into experiences where you need to learn how to speak up for what you want, so I think that benefitted me in a lot of ways when it comes to setting expectations and boundaries.

But this is a learnable skill.

Alright, let’s do a quick recap on setting up expectations and boundaries:

Communicating what you want requires you to believe that what you want matters. When you communicate what you want, you’re creating a client expectation. They’re now on the same page as you are.

  1. Know what you want – what you want matters
  2. Know what you will do if the other person doesn’t follow through
  3. Communicate what you want and what will happen if your client doesn’t follow through
  4. Follow through with what you communicated
  5. Have your back no matter what you do

Want to begin implementing what you’re learning on the podcast?

When we work together, you’ll gain clarity on different areas in your practice where you can resolve resentment and anger with your clients. Not only will you create better relationships with clients moving forward, but you’ll give yourself the gift of peace of mind, the gift of more time to focus on what matters most to you, and the gift of respecting the value of your services to your clients.

Boundaries create a domino effect where you’ll notice you begin increasing your confidence to do things like raise your rates, take on only the best clients, and stop overworking in your practice so you can enjoy more of your life.

That’s why my clients see a huge return on their investment when they work with me.

You can see my client testimonials for yourself and book a Strategy Session with me at – And you can book a call with me there too.

Enjoy the upcoming holiday, and I’ll talk to you on the podcast next week.


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