Blog post

How lawyers can set ethical boundaries after the pandemic | Zelle LLP

July 27, 2022

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In January 2020, I authored a Law360 guest post titled “Setting Boundaries: An Essential Skills for Lawyers”, which highlighted the need for firm boundaries when it comes to attorney-client relationships and recognized the setting of boundaries as a essential form of the lawyer’s autonomy. care.

Two and a half years and a global pandemic later, the limits are not only just as important, but arguably more important given the dramatic change in the way lawyers practice law in a mostly remote work-from-home environment with Zoom hearings, depositions and even virtual proofs.

Issues related to lawyers’ mental health, addictions and personal well-being had been hot topics of discussion even before the pandemic.

With reports showing a 25% increase in anxiety and depression in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic,[1] these issues remain at the forefront not just for the legal profession, but for every person of any age and from any walk of life.

Notably, although the shift to remote working has, according to some employers, resulted in increased productivity, engagement and morale, mental health issues and burnout have soared during the pandemic.[2]

As we settle into the new normal – whatever that may be – assess whether the remnants of pandemic life, including remote work, are part of the solution or part of the problem takes on new urgency.

The inability to leave problems in the office or have time to recharge can cause lawyers to experience increased levels of stress and burnout.

This article explores a strategy to combat the breaking down of boundaries in remote working regimes, which can exacerbate mental health issues among workers, including lawyers.

Traditional understanding of boundaries

The general concept of boundaries “refers to the physical, temporal, emotional, cognitive and relational limits that separate one entity from another”, according to a study by Katja Kerman, Christian Korunka and Sara Tement published by the International Association of Applied Psychology in June 2021.[3]

Limits are generally understood as limits or rules about what you will accept from another person’s words or actions.[4] The fundamental principle about boundaries is that we, and we alone, are responsible for our own well-being.[5]

Clear and consistent boundaries promote job satisfaction, career development and safety.[6] It is important to remember that boundaries exist and affect us, whether we communicate them or not.[7]

Technology and borders

According to Maya Middlemiss, author of books on remote work, it’s important to take a step back to recognize how technology has normalized the lack of boundaries in our lives.[8]

For example, messaging apps available on every device have created more freedom and flexibility about where and when we work, but they have also blurred the boundaries for workers in every location.[9]

Even before the pandemic, having our work phones near us in the evenings had become normal, creating “strong corporate norms that are difficult to disentangle for those seeking a better balance”, according to a June 2021 BBC article. by Maddy Savage.[10]

In response, some employers have implemented specific policies such as banning after-hours emails or encouraging staff to turn off notifications on weekends.

Work-life balance: an outdated concept?

The traditional concept of work-life balance stemmed from industrial labor jobs: allocating eight hours to work, eight hours to home life, and eight hours to sleep.

However, as the professional landscape has changed dramatically, this division is not only outdated, but unrealistic, and those who have attempted to capture a magical unicorn of work-life balance often find themselves either burned out or impression of doing inferior work. in work and in life.

One way to eliminate the elusive construct of work-life balance is to think of everything as work – in the sense that everything in life stems from internal connections – whether those connections happen at the office, at home, at the church, etc.

However, another way to think about it is to see everything as life. But when everything—jobs, family, relationships, health, and finances—falls under the classification of life, how do we draw the necessary boundaries under this all-is-life concept?

By examining how boundaries fit into this concept of everything like life, ethics and ethical boundaries become more important than ever in navigating the post-pandemic work culture.

Ethical limits for lawyers

A lawyer’s ethics derive, in part, from the code of ethics of the state or country in which the lawyer is licensed. For example, nearly every state has adopted, with some modifications, the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

These rules were designed to maintain the integrity of the profession, to require lawyers to adhere to the rules and to report another lawyer to professional authorities for conduct “that raises a substantial question as to honesty, reliability or suitability of that lawyer in other respects.”, according to the rules.[11]

In addition to professional ethical obligations, many employers have established a code of ethics for company officers and employees. For example, the Inc. Code of Business Conduct and Ethics sets out basic guiding principles regarding conflicts of interest, insider trading, discrimination and harassment, and health and safety. security.[12]

Along with these ethical responsibilities, individuals most often think and act in accordance with their own personal ethics, which include the principles a person uses to make decisions that influence various aspects of their life.

Personal ethics can include standards related to honesty, loyalty, integrity, respect, selflessness and responsibility.[13]

Thus, an alternative theory regarding the creation and enforcement of boundaries in the context of professional and personal self-care is the concept that your ethics are your boundaries. Ethics is the foundation of a person’s character and is what most individuals turn to when there are competing moral claims.[14]

Ethical Boundaries as a Pathway to Lawyer Well-Being

Even before the pandemic, lawyers were particularly prone to psychological distress, depression and substance abuse.[15]

The lack of boundaries often leads to increased stress levels, leading to attorney burnout, substandard legal services, and even professional discipline.[16]

But effective and appropriate limits can be difficult to identify and establish given competing demands on attorneys’ time, such as: building strong client relationships; be available to clients and colleagues; meet the needs of a family; and sleep, exercise and personal health.

However, if a lawyer is acting within their personal code of ethics, effective and strong boundaries are already set.

For example, if a lawyer’s personal code of ethics is to choose the outcome that produces the greatest good and does the least harm, the lawyer may decide to work overtime on a case early in the morning when the children sleep rather than in the early morning. evening during family time.

If a lawyer’s personal ethic is to treat all people fairly and equally, that lawyer may refuse the opportunity to engage in bulldog tactics, but instead seek to resolve disputes civilly, by refraining from personally attacking the adversary.

Similarly, ethical values-based boundaries of providing legal advice to clients only when the lawyer is functioning as a clear-headed person may cause the lawyer to withdraw from late-night drinking events with clients. so that the lawyer can enjoy a morning practice session before participating. during an important meeting or mediation.

Making decisions and choosing a course of action in accordance with their personal code of ethics should be the goal of every lawyer, both in the practice of law and in life experience.

And if lawyers establish and adhere to these ethical boundaries in the practice of law, we can not only experience a society with emotionally healthier lawyers, but also a thriving and robust legal system.

[1] %2D19%20pandemic%20triggers%2025,of%20anxiety%20and%20depression%20worldwide (last visited July 8, 2022).


[3] (last accessed 18 July 2022) (citing Ashforth, BE, Kreiner, GE, & Fugate, M. (2000). a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. The Academy of Management Review, 25(3), 472-491.




[7] The 10 Laws of Borders, 2017 Dr Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend.

[8] (last visited July 18, 2022).

[9] Identifier.

[10] Identifier.

[11] (last visited July 15, 2022).

[12] (last visited July 15, 2022).

[13] (last visited July 15, 2022).


[15] “Saving Lawyers One Breath at a Time: Mindfulness in Law”, Law360, 12 January 2017.