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  • set boundaries

How to set boundaries and manage expectations.


In a recent session with a client, her last after a year of coaching, reflecting on the progress she had made, she thanked me for what she described as the “best advice anyone has ever given me”.

That advice was, “start as you mean to go on”.

It was the advice I had given, on her request (because coaching is about so much more than just giving advice), on her return from maternity leave a year earlier. As a result of putting into practice what I suggested, she had found that she was immediately able to manage expectations and set boundaries about what her colleagues and clients could expect from her, and about what she would expect from herself. This meant that she could eliminate many of the issues returning mothers struggle with – the guilt of having to leave the office early to pick up the baby from nursery, the insecurity that can arise when you need to complete your working day at home after bedtime instead of staying in the office late, and the frustration on both sides when there’s a mismatch of expectations between you and those you work with.

These two things – managing expectations and setting boundaries, are all about knowing what to say yes to and what to say no to. They mean exercising your judgement and leveraging your position in a way that gives you more control and creates pockets of autonomy in a relentlessly demanding working environment. Being able to do this is critical to a successful career, particularly in the law profession with its potentially infinite demands on your time and energy and the pressures of reaching eye-watering billable targets. If you can master these skills early in the working parenthood journey, then decision-making will be easier, you’ll be less likely to suffer from feelings of guilt and you’ll be sending a positive message about how you want to be treated in a way that isn’t going to sabotage your career.

Whatever stage you are at in your career and personal life, the sooner you master these skills, the better. Whether you’re at the building stage – focusing on building your law career and planning on having a family at some point in the future; or the transition stage – approaching or returning from maternity leave; or the growth stage – growing your family and progressing your career at the same time – these key skills of managing expectations and setting boundaries will be essential to your success.

Let’s look at your opportunities for using them.

  • On holiday
    How much will you work, who can contact you? Will you check and respond to emails and if so how often?
  • When you’re asked to take on more work by another partner
    When do you have to say yes? When is it in your best interests to say yes? And when is it more important to say no?
  • When a client imposes an aggressive deadline
    When should you say yes, and in what circumstances can you, or should you, push back?
  • When the partner you work for over-promises to a client
    Again, when do you follow their lead and when do you challenge?
  • When your other half questions your working hours
    How do you explain why you say yes to work demands as often as you do, and at the same time convince them that there are things you are saying no to because you value your relationship and/or family?
  • When you’re starting maternity leave
    How much contact will you have with the office while you’re away? When is it appropriate for someone to contact you about a work matter?
  • When you’re returning from maternity leave
    What do you need to say no to in order to meet your childcare obligations and honour your family values? When is it important to say yes at work to show that you’re still in the game and that you’ve got what it takes?

As you can see, when combining a challenging law career with planning or raising a family, there are many occasions when being able to assertively set boundaries and manage expectations would be an asset. How do you go about developing and employing that skillset?


Here’s how:

1. Understand that you have choices.
One of the common reasons for overwhelm and feeling that you have no control, is the belief that you have no choice in how you respond to requests. If the client or your boss says ‘jump’, you’re trained to say, ‘how high?’. To say no is to risk sabotaging your career, right?
Having yes as your default response to every demand that is made of you (and there will be many of those) is not the road to success – it’s the road to burnout, misery and potentially, being used as a doormat. People won’t come to you with the sexy, exciting deals because they know you’ll say yes to anything. They’ll come to you with the low level work that no one else is willing to do because they know you’ll agree to do it. But you do have a choice. Look around you – how is it that some people always work on holiday and others get away with leaving their Blackberry or iPhone on their desk? Why do some leave the office early and others feel chained to their desks all night, every night? It’s because some of them have exercised their choices. You also have choices, the key is learning how to exercise them.

2. Get clarity on your choices.
At first glance, your choices may seem obvious: say yes or no. But life and work is a lot more complicated than that if you want to progress your career and keep your relationships in tact.
A black and white approach to what you will and won’t do will serve no one, least of all you.
So if not these, then what are your choices? Obviously these choices aren’t for the everyday decisions you make or requests you need to honour to do your job properly. Many things you will need to say yes to, even if you don’t want to, because it’s part of the job description. You are being paid after all! Your real choices are for the situations where you feel conflicted, or where there’s a lot at stake, like whether you get home in time to collect your baby from nursery, whether you miss yet another date night that puts your relationship at risk or whether you get to spend at least one day of your holiday having a much needed break from it all rather than in the hotel room taking conference calls.

To set boundaries and manage expectations you have three choices:


set boundaries


  • The strategic yes – for when you’d rather say no but when saying yes would bring you a clear advantage. Use this when you’re asked to work with a senior partner on a high profile deal. Yes you’re already at full capacity, but opportunities like this don’t come along very often. Has this partner singled you out for a reason? Is this your chance to raise your profile within the firm, get in front of a major client, and show everyone what you’re made of? Also use this if it’s a massive learning opportunity. One of my clients is on track to becoming the office expert in her field, the new kid on the block for a particular type of work. She has experience in 6 out of the 7 core competency areas, so when the opportunity came for her to gain experience in the missing area, even though she was already putting in the hours, she was motivated to say yes.
  • The non negotiable no – for the requests that cross a line into a place you’re not prepared to go because of what’s at stake. For example, it might impact your physical or mental health, your safety, the survival of your relationship, or the wellbeing of your child/ren. Get clear about what you are not prepared to do and the reasons why ahead of time, then when the time comes to make a decision, you’ll know exactly what to do. The issues that evoke a non negotiable no aren’t the everyday issues that only affect what time you get to leave the office. They are the key issues that threaten the core of who you are and what matters to you most. If you don’t already have the courage or strength to stand up for these, then now is the time to build it. Have a look at my blog on saying ‘no’ more often here.
  • The judgement call  – the beauty of the non negotiable no and the strategic yes is that it makes certain decisions easier. But while some of your decisions will fit clearly and easily into these categories, the reality is that most of them won’t. Most of them will require that you exercise your judgement. The question is, how do you do this effectively? One suggestion I have is to keep in mind your long term career goals. For example, if your goal is to be recognised as an expert in your field, ask yourself “would doing this help me to become an expert in my field?” Or let’s say your goal is to bill a certain number of hours this year, the obvious question when being asked to work on holiday for example, would be “will these hours help me reach that target?”. Another strategy I use for determining what I say yes or no to, is what message I will be sending if I say yes or no on the issue involved. What will this tell others about me? What message do I want to send to others and will a particular course of action promote or hinder that message?

3. Start as you mean to go on.
Coming back to where we started with my client, putting all this into practice as early as possible in the working parenthood process will start you off in the direction you want to go in, show your bosses and colleagues you mean business, and set you up for success. When going on or returning from maternity leave, set your boundaries and make your intentions clear. Before  you go off, decide how much contact you plan to have with the office while you’re away. Can anyone call you up with a question? Are you happy for your boss to ask for your help? Or for your client to contact you? And how should they get in touch? Will you be checking and responding to emails? Decide these things in advance and make it clear to your bosses and colleagues. Think about what sort of career/family balance you want when you return. Do you want to continue with the same job or maintain a senior role but with flexible working arrangements? Do you need to be able to work from home on occasion, or more regularly? 

When it comes to setting boundaries and managing expectations my advice follows the same principles it always has – think about the big picture (what you want and what matters most) then do the preparation and practice you need to get there. Don’t expect it to be easy, it won’t be! But that’s ok, because persevering is a key part of this strategy, and with every decision you make you get the feedback that will help you get better and better at it.


Do you have any other tips for managing other people’s expectations? Write and let me know, I’d love to hear from you.


fear of failureCaroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at caroline@babyproofyourlife.com