Finding the Line: A Crash Course in Law School Boundaries

Reflecting on my law school years always fills me with a solid mixture of nostalgia and terror. I am one of those weirdos who really loved law school, but that “ish” was hard, particularly the first year. Everything was brand new, and I, like many others, went through a lot of personal growth. This required redefining and resetting my own boundaries with the people who were in my life before law school as well as learning to navigate new boundaries with my law school peers, professors, and administrators.

This was a challenging balancing act, which I handled more gracefully at some times than others. I urge you to learn from my trials and tribulations and consider the following the next time you need to take stock of or reinforce the boundaries in your life.

Personal relationships

You have probably heard horror stories about how hard law school is on your personal relationships. I wish I could tell you that those are just rumors and to pay them no mind. But the truth is, law school really is tough on your relationships. Think of law school as the start of a new relationship. A new, needy relationship that requires all of your time and attention. This will naturally leave you with less time to spend with the people in your life. Your friends and family may be accustomed to you being more available, so if you don’t manage their expectations about your availability, you are setting yourself up for failure and arguments.

Remember, their lives are all going on as usual and have not stopped simply because you’ve decided to go to law school. This statement is in direct conflict with the typical advice for law school, which is “thy must prioritize law school above all else.” Heck, that is probably advice I’ve given myself. And, it is true, you must make law school a very high priority in order to be successful. After all, it is far too expensive, time consuming, and nerve wracking to not go all in. However, if you want to come out of law school with any of your previous relationships intact, you will probably have to compromise on some things.

I highly recommend that you sit down with the most important people in your life and explain the demands of law school, especially the time commitment. Do not tell them that they will have to change and explain how they should adapt to meet your needs. Instead, let them know what is coming down the pipeline and reassure them that they are still a priority in your life. Then, very quickly, shift to offering and brainstorming ways to ensure your relationship remains strong. For example, you can plan a regular Sunday evening call to mom, a Thursday morning tele-coffee date with your partner, or a weekly “let’s text and watch Scandal at the same time” break with your BFF. Then, do your very best to consistently check in when you say will. Consistency earns you brownie points that you may need to cash in at the end of the semester when it’s crunch time and you really need to focus.

Law School Peers

Your relationships with your law school peers fall into a bit of a grey area. You should never lose sight of the fact that law school is part of your professional training and that your classmates will be your future colleagues. They will be your coworkers, bosses, opposing counsel, and maybe even the judge presiding over a case you are trying. However, it is impossible, and inadvisable, to go through 3+ years of law school without socializing with your classmates. With socializing comes friendships, relationships, and, yes, drama. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard law students compare law school to high school.

Try these tips to stay above the fray:

  • Don’t gossip. Ever. If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.
  • Drink responsibly. You don’t want to accidentally do something that can’t be undone, unseen, or “unposted” on Facebook.
  • Date cautiously. Be private about your private life.

Professional relationships

In addition to managing your personal relationships and forming new friendships with your classmates, you will also be forming new professional relationships with professors, administrators, attorneys, and mentors. In this situation, it is less about you setting a boundary than it is about you ensuring you are respecting their boundaries.

For example, professors are there to teach you, and you should hold them to that standard. However, it is important to respect the rules and policies they put into place, such as office hours, preferred methods of communication, or classroom policies and procedures. My high school math teacher had a poster behind his desk that said, “failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Remember this when you are rushing into your professor’s office demanding, well, anything. When it comes to mentors, keep in mind that they are there to guide and give you advice. This doesn’t necessarily make them your friend. Follow their lead in terms of level of communication and amount of personal information you share.

Whether you are the one setting boundaries or are trying to respect someone else’s boundaries, communication is key. At the end of the day, the most important thing is respectfully ask for what you need and do your best to honor other people's boundaries.

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    Meet the Author
    Kerriann Stout is the founder and CEO of Vinco Prep, LLC that serves clients with 1:1 support for their academic and professional needs. Kerriann is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at several law schools teaching courses on bar prep strategies and legislation and regulation and is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science. She lives, works, and writes in New York. Read more about Kerriann >