#1276: “Setting boundaries when there’s a significant power difference (and you’re the one with less)”

Hi Captain,

I’m wondering if you have a script for setting boundaries where there’s a significant power differential. Briefly, I’ve recently hired a lawyer who specializes in disability rights to represent me in a human rights case against a corporation that discriminated against me based on my mental health disability. The lawyer is very competent, knowledgeable, and skillful, but he is not great at communication. Often I have to send multiple emails for him to respond to me, and he is regularly 10-15 minutes late to our phone meetings.

Several days ago, he sent me an email asking if we could set up a phone call for that afternoon. I responded about five minutes later with several times I was available. He didn’t respond to the email, and didn’t call me at any of the listed times. I thought he might just be running late, so I sent him a subsequent email saying I had a meeting at 4:00, but he could call me at 5:00. He did not call me at 5:00. At 5:30, I finally sent him an email saying I assumed he wasn’t going to call me today, which is okay, but in the future, I would appreciate if he would a) send me an email to confirm what time he will call me if I’ve given him several options, and b) send me an email if he isn’t going to be able to call me on a given day when he has asked for my availability. I thought these were reasonable requests.

He emailed me back at 6:15, saying he had been “unavailable” earlier but could call me this evening, and to let him know what time worked for me. We agreed to speak at 7:00, but he didn’t end up calling until 7:32. At that point, I was quite frustrated and I told him that I appreciate his expertise and skill as a lawyer, but it makes me very anxious when he tells me he is going to call me at a given time and is half an hour late doing so, and I would appreciate in the future if he would send me an email if he is going to be late. He got quite defensive and said that I was being “disrespectful” to him and that he is “a professional” and that he was doing me a favour by calling me in the evening and he has a family and other obligations and he had been picking up his daughter and that’s why he was late. He then said that if I’m going to be disrespectful to him, then maybe he doesn’t want to be my lawyer.

I am very concerned, because the case I’m dealing with is quite complex and we’re in the middle of it – it would be significantly detrimental if the lawyer does decide that he doesn’t want to work with me anymore. It would be difficult to find a new lawyer due to the complexity of the case, and even if I did find a new lawyer, I would probably still lose the case and have wasted the thousands of dollars I’ve already spent in legal fees for the original lawyer. I have spoken to the law society in my jurisdiction about this matter and they’ve told me that I should speak to the lawyer about my concerns, but when I have done that, he gets defensive to the point that I’m worried he’ll drop me as a client. I also know the law society would likely consider it misconduct if the lawyer did drop me as a client due to me giving reasonable feedback about his persistent lateness; however, that doesn’t help me, because the law society can only act after the harm has been done.

This situation is negatively impacting my mental health significantly and triggering PTSD caused by a previous abusive relationship. My ex-partner used to gaslight me by telling me she would call me at a given time and then just not call, or tell me she needed another hour and then would still not call an hour later. When I tried to talk to her about this, she would tell me that I clearly didn’t understand how busy she is or that she deals with a chronic illness and I was being demanding and unreasonable by expecting her to either keep our scheduled phone calls or to let me know in advance if she wasn’t going to call. This happened several times a week for months, where I would be sitting by the phone waiting for her to call and then I would feel guilty about not being “understanding enough” about all the reasons she wasn’t able to talk to me at the time we’d agreed to. It took a while before I realized she was doing this on purpose to control me, and I broke up with her soon after. (And yes, I do have a therapist I’m processing this with!)

But in this situation with the lawyer, it feels like I’m being triggered and gaslit in much the same way, where he’s making me feel like I’m being unreasonable or “disrespectful” for not wanting to wait thirty minutes after our appointed time for him to call me. Do you have a script for how to approach this issue with him, or something I can do to set boundaries for myself so I’m not feeling so upset and triggered by this?

Thanks very much,

Confused Client (she/her)

Hi Confused Client:

Sympathies, I had a colleague like this lawyer who was really good at so many things about our job but also so avoidant and inconsistent at communicating that I finally brought it to our mutual boss, which is never my first remedy in a conflict, especially with someone I like so much. The boss  “helpfully” explained to me that this person was “just bad at email” which was a) infuriating in a career that involved dealing with lots of straight cis men who were “bad at email,” “bad updating the learning management system,” “bad at hygiene,” “bad at listening,” “bad at keeping track of grades and schedules,” and “bad at time management, especially managing when it is not their turn to talk” in a way that women are never allowed to be bad and b) strangely relatable because sometimes I am the person who is fucking it all up.

I later found out that “bad at email” person was desperately trying to hold it together at work while dealing with some truly harrowing losses and stressors and since then that person’s name has become a kind of exasperated-yet-affectionate buzzword in my household, like, “Sorry I know I’m being the [Name] this week, can we maybe do it on Saturday.” 

You want to keep this lawyer because you think he’s the best chance for winning your case, yes? You do not want to fire him and find a different lawyer (assuming you even can)? And he’s doing a good job with the substance of the work of winning your case when he does report in? Right?

I’m going with “yes” so from here on out my recommendations for strategies and scripts are organized around one question: Will this tactic/conversation/strategy/attitude help you win your case? Y/N 

You are trying to collaborate as a team on a challenging matter, and the more this becomes about “You don’t respect my time or my feelings!” vs. “You don’t respect my time or my work!,” the more everybody’s shoulders go up around their ears and the less effective you will be as a team.

In my opinion, we’ve got to get the shoulders down and reintroduce a baseline of mutual respect and trust into the conversation. There are imbalances of power and styles here that mean the ramshackle raft your case is traveling on is about to capsize. Demanding respect didn’t re-balance it or fix the leaks, so what happens if you make a strategic decision to give the maximum amount of respect and trust? In other words, if you do respect this guy’s abilities and work, and you do trust him to represent you, so what happens if you make your conversations about the substance of that work and strategically ignore the style differences, especially since you know that they’re unlikely to change?

I’m reminded of an old advice column (probably Hax) where the Letter Writer was frustrated at the messiness of her teenaged daughter’s room and they fought about it constantly, and finally the advisor was like, look, your daughter’s going to move out forever in a couple years, so do you want every single conversation with your kid between now and then to be a fight about her room or do you want to shut the door so it doesn’t bother you so much and talk about something else?

Do you want the relationship with your lawyer to be about his unforgivable tardiness or do you want it to be about something else? I think: Something else. Good news, I think you can make some decisions that rebalance things and take good care of yourself, so that’s where I’m coming from.

Let’s talk about the feelings first: I can absolutely see why you’re annoyed and why this guy’s communication and time management style is pinging your memories of how your ex treated you and why a lawsuit (a messy thing that is going to bring its own big feelings with it) is making you feel out of control. But to be frank, I can also see why he’s feeling defensive and disrespected. Feelings are information, so, let’s work with the ones we got.

Trying to talk yourself out of feeling your feelings is a doomed enterprise. Whatever feelings you “should” be having, these are the feelings you are having.

I’m glad you have a therapist already, and perhaps a good topic for your discussions in therapy can be “How do I honor my feelings and give myself room to feel them when I’m angry that my lawyer is late, again, without blowing up at him or derailing the stuff we actually need to talk about?” See if you can work together on creating an action plan for prepping for and staying on task before, during, and after calls that you can be pretty sure are going to stress you out.

I’m not your therapist, so these are possibilities, not actual instructions, but some strategies that come to mind are:

  • Breathing exercises (or other calming exercises) for keeping calm and restoring focus.
  • Writing down questions and notes before and during your discussion both to keep yourself focused and because the physical act of note-taking can be grounding.
  • If by chance you take fast-acting “as-needed” meds for anxiety,  pre-plan/budget a dose for when you know you’re going to be talking to your lawyer/waiting to talk to your lawyer. (I always forget I have them until it’s already bad, so my therapist saying “You know you can put a dose aside for right before you do the scary phone call, right?” was one of those obvious-yet-life-changing things.)
  • Plan something not-too-taxing and restorative for before & after your conversations.
  • Compose and write a vengeful musical adaptation of No Exit where your ex and your lawyer are trapped in the same corner of Tardiness Hell. 

Whatever action plan you make, my strong sense is that story of your ex (and what she did to you and why and how it made you feel) is a therapy story (and/or a private journal story/a close friend story) vs. a law office or a courtroom story. Not because it’s untrue, not because it’s not truly affecting you, but because it’s not immediately useful to winning your case. You’ve got a law professional and a feelings professional and you’ll probably come out better if you cross the streams as little as possible.

Now let’s talk about your lawyer & how to manage him. I’m going to refer to him as “Nate” (rhymes with “late”) for the rest of this post.

You’re paying Nate to represent you, and a professional who says he’s going to call at 4pm should probably call by 4:05 pm (lawyers are human and human beings have to pee), not make you chase him down for information, and alert you in advance to any schedule changes, especially when he already knows that this particular client gets stressed out when he doesn’t.

What should be happening and what is actually happening are quite different, and your power to turn what is happening into what should be happening is quite limited. The professional association (which we’ll talk about in more detail in a moment) can’t help you, and Nate has said he will drop you as a client if you keep harping on this.

The most useful step for you at this moment, the one that both repairs the working relationship as much as it can be repaired from your end and also reclaims some of your sense of control, is to accept what is happening and try to work with the parameters of that for the best outcome for yourself (a won legal case).

Let’s break it down into practicalities:

Nate has never called you on time. You’ve gone to great lengths to try to change that, but it’s clearly not happening.

Whether Nate needs more & better admin support, suffers from time-blindness, is totally overbooked with work (common in a profession where there is pressure to fill & bill for every second of time), it’s clear he prioritizes time differently from you. I can see a realistic scenario where him getting to you *only* 10-15 minutes late or squeezing in a call during his dinner hour & parenting responsibilities is a win from his end because he got to you the same day he promised to and didn’t have to push it to tomorrow. Ableism is possible even in disability rights attorneys, and if you’re not working presently, he may have the mistaken perception that his time is valuable lawyer-time and you have nothing better to do than wait. We can’t know why this is happening, and these aren’t your problems to solve even if you did know. You’ll screen future friends and lovers for compatible styles and attitudes around time, but this is the lawyer you’ve got.

What we can know:

  • “I’ll call you at 4pm” most likely means he will try to call you at 4pm-ish. 
  • “I’ll call you at 6:30 pm” most likely means he’s not in the office anymore and is fitting clients in around commuting & picking up his children as he can, so it’s more like “6:30-8 is my rough window for getting back to you, I’ll do the best I can.” 
  • “Do you have time for a chat later today?” is a question, not a guarantee that he will have time today. A crapshoot.

Should he just communicate those parameters to you from the start like a self-aware adult? Yes.

Is he going actually ever do that? No. Plus, even with the best intentions, he’s in a field where nobody is ever supposed to admit they struggle with anything.

But there’s actually a lot you can do once you accept that this is how Nate is that doesn’t involve changing Nate.

First, from now on, as long as you work together, assume that Nate will never be on time with scheduled calls, and adapt your schedule and your expectations accordingly.

Next, until you have confirmation from him that a meeting is scheduled, the times you suggested for him to call you back are not your actual meeting. Referring back to your letter:

Several days ago, he sent me an email asking if we could set up a phone call for that afternoon. I responded about five minutes later with several times I was available. He didn’t respond to the email, and didn’t call me at any of the listed times. I thought he might just be running late, so I sent him a subsequent email saying I had a meeting at 4:00, but he could call me at 5:00. He did not call me at 5:00. At 5:30, I finally sent him an email saying I assumed he wasn’t going to call me today, which is okay, but in the future, I would appreciate if he would a) send me an email to confirm what time he will call me if I’ve given him several options, and b) send me an email if he isn’t going to be able to call me on a given day when he has asked for my availability. I thought these were reasonable requests.

You didn’t actually have an appointment. You had a request for availability, which you answered and which he should have responded to, but clearly, he got caught up in something else, and you have no idea what. Could he be a better communicator, like, “Hey, I know I asked to talk today but stuff came up, I’m so sorry, I’ll try to catch you tonight?” Sure, but also, what you can control is the thing where right now you’re reserving all of your suggested times “just in case” as if they are actual agreements, which is inconvenient for you, which also means he’s accruing emotional interest on a time loan that he doesn’t even know he signed for. This is setting everyone up to fail, and feel maximally aggrieved, so change the settings by changing the assumptions.

When you do actually schedule meetings with him, build in buffers in your daily calendar that account for an extra 15-30 minutes for Nate-Standard-Time. And since you know ahead of time that you’ll probably wait for a bit, plan ahead to give yourself something to do while you wait. Possibilities:

  • Save a favorite podcast episode or audiobook and turn it on 10 minutes before the scheduled call to give yourself time to get absorbed.
  • Pick something in your house or your office in the room where you talk and organize or clean it while you wait. Call it the Nate Challenge: How much mail can you open & sort & recycle before he calls? How much laundry can you fold? How many emails can you clean out of your inbox? How’s that cat box looking, does it need a quick scoop? Those 20 minutes where you grow increasingly furious can become 20 minutes where you knock a little something  off your to-do list.
  • Give yourself a hard end time where you are no longer waiting for him. Maybe he will call you eventually and that can be a nice surprise, but, see if you can cut short the part where you wait and wait and wait.
  • Revisit that therapy action plan you made if you get stuck or feel yourself spiraling.

One thing that’s reminding you of your ex and stressing you out is the uncertainty, right? Will he call, when will he call, how long will it take. Nate could decrease uncertainty for you, but it’s clear that he won’t, so can you rebalance things by factoring in some uncertainty on your end since you can be pretty certain that there will be some?

You can also take some control of scheduling and set boundaries that way. For instance, it sounds like when Nate tries to schedule something, you immediately give him many possible time windows to be as flexible as possible. “I can talk at 2, 2:30, 3, noon tomorrow, anytime the day after,” etc. This is very nice and accommodating on your part, but I want you to stop, for several reasons:

  • You’re prioritizing maximum flexibility for a dude who doesn’t prioritize your time, so, just on principle, stop that.
  • It contributes to the picture that you are free anytime so committing to a specific time isn’t as necessary. If Nate falls behind and something’s gotta give, the client who said “anytime Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning or these three time slots on Wednesday” is going to lose to the judge who says “I’ve got a few minutes for you between 1pm and 1:30.” Naturally accommodating people think that they secretly earn credit and more consideration from others when they take one for the team; the opposite is true. Naturally demanding people don’t even notice.
  • The more possible data he has, the more mental scheduling-Tetris Nate has to play. I think we can agree that this is not his strong suit, so, help him help you.

From now on, when he asks you when is a good time to talk, try the following:

  • If this is actually true for you, try “I’ve got a few minutes right now if that works for you.” Maybe you can skip the whole part where you compare calendars! Great, now set a timer for 5 minutes. If you don’t hear back in 5 minutes, it’s not happening. Go on with your day.
  • Suggest one time window, two max, and give them as a narrow time frame. “I’ve got a little time between 2pm and 2:30 today, can that work?” He is free to suggest alternatives that work for him, but don’t automatically do it for him. 
  • Does it have to be today? You’re free to NOT be free for same-day appointments, since the second the prospect comes up it sounds like your whole day gets ruined playing scheduling tag and revolving around a person you know is incredibly busy. You don’t have to make this an explicit rule, just, as it comes up, it is 100% okay to say “If it’s urgent I can make time right right now, otherwise, howabout x time window tomorrow instead?” 
  • The dinner hour calls where he tries to fit you in at the end of the day seem maximally chaotic for both of you, so, maybe don’t do that anymore? Nate: “I can try again before 7 tonight” You: “Oh, that won’t work for me. How’s [alternate time tomorrow during business hours] instead?” Don’t explain why it won’t work for you, especially since the real answer is “’cause I don’t trust you to actually do it.” 
  • Suggest calling him at the scheduled time instead. He probably won’t go for it, but he might, esp. if you present it as “I know you’re a busy guy, if you’re still tied up I’ll just leave a message and we’ll figure it out from there.” 
  • If he misses the scheduled time + the buffer you factored in, consider that Nate will not die of having to leave you a voice mail. He’s sort of conditioned you to hang on the question of whether and when he will be free, and it feels scary to ignore him, but he is an important professional who has had to play phone tag before, I promise.
  • I realize that I’m sort of suggesting some of “The Rules” from that horrible dating book, except for your attorney. “Don’t be so available last minute!” etc. Welp, boundaries are good, actually, I don’t think chasing people works, actually, and something something about stopped clocks even amidst the shitshow of performative misogyny.
  • It’s a little passive-aggressive…in fact it’s a little aggressive-aggressive…but if you already communicate by text, a single gentle “Hello, are we still on for [time] today? Remind me to ask you about [actual topic question]. Thanks!” poke an hour before is not the worst idea, as long as you a) had a mutually-recognized actually scheduled time b) keep it VERY brief and c) keep it VERY friendly & positive. Strategically reframing a thing where you are definitely reminding him about something as a reminder to self is an obvious move, but if it works, it works!
  • Could some of your calls be emails? Esp. something that’s getting rescheduled multiple times? “Sorry to miss you today, I’m not free this evening. Is this something you can email me and we can catch up tomorrow?” If the answer is no, let him figure it out, but free yourself from waiting by the phone.
  • Level with him and ask for help. But, strategically. “Hey, Nate, can we back up? I really respect your work and I don’t want to stress each other out, so, in a perfect world, how would you like to schedule meetings and stay in touch, and how can I make that work on my end?” 

Ok, I realize that was long, but I wanted you to see that you have many possible options for managing communications and giving less of your precious time or headspace to this question.

Now we’re going to talk about feelings again for a minute, in that, your lawyer is hurting yours, but he also has them. Feelings are information, and how he feels about working with you and communicating with you matters to winning your case.

Lawyers do not bring up the prospect of firing their clients mid-case lightly, and I would assume he is pretty pissed off. Who’s fault is that and who has a right to be more pissed off about what is an open question, but I want you to win your case, so I want to help you mitigate some of the damage to your working relationship that’s coming from your side and avoid doing any more. (In your shoes I’d also do some research about what you would do if you mutually fired each other. Cover your bases and take care of you!)

Two principles I think you need to know:

  1. All time is billable time.
  2. Lawyers talk. 

All time is billable time, including any time you spend discussing your lawyer’s tardiness in returning your calls, including exchanging apologies (sincere or strategic) and recriminations.

You want your lawyer negotiating for you, not with you.

Your project is to win your case, not to fix your lawyer’s relationship with time.

You said he’s skillful and knowledgeable, some knowledgeable and skillful people are bad at time, he’s one of them, you know that, so wherever possible, skip ahead to the skills part?

Picture your current dynamic:

Current Nate: “Oh hello, glad I caught you, is this a good time?” 

Current You: “It was a good time 10 minutes ago, I thought we discussed boundaries around professional communications already?” 

You say that he’s gotten defensive with you, and, well, yeah? It’s unlikely that he is thinking “Oh god, I am hurting and triggering this poor client who has already been through so much, what an unprofessional shit I am being” during these chats. (And if he were, this would not help your case, since shame is not motivating.)

His internal monologue is probably more like “Jeez, I’m sorry, but not actually that sorry the more I think about it, I’d actually much rather be catching up with my kid right now but I thought it was important to get back to you, so can we move on please? Don’t you know that I am doing the best I can?”

He knows his time is expensive and he wants to get to the point and I suspect that’s what the comments about whether or not you “respect his work” are really saying.

So here is a strategic, useful gift of grace you can grant both of you from now on.

Future Nate: “Oh, hello, glad I caught you. Is this still a good time?” 

Future You: “Hey, good to hear from you. What’s the news?” 

Spare everybody Mandatory Ritual Apology Time. Assume that this is actually the best he can manage about comms and then let him do what you hired him to do. It’s not that you wouldn’t be owed an apology when someone is late for a promised thing, it’s that it is making both of you feel bad and it’s not winning your case. Write ‘FUCK YOUUUUUUU  LATE NATE RUINER OF EVENINGS’ or whatever in a thick sharpie on a sticky note that he can’t see if you need to get the feeling out, but stay constructive and focused on the legal advice in your call.

If he says something awkward & defensive, like, he was bracing himself for a lecture about being late again, try saying something like this:

“Nate, look, I hope you know that I really value your work and I want to keep working together on my case, so let’s just dive in, ok?

Be gracious, even when you don’t have to be, and see what grace it gets you. Cool? If you can do this, I think it will instantly chill things out.

All right, one last thing. I hate this part, but I think you have to understand it to be strategic about winning your case, and it’s important.

Lawyers talk to other lawyers. 

They must keep their client’s info & dealings confidential, but it is also the gossiping-est profession in gossip-land (after cops), and there are lots & lots of ways for “What’s up, Late Nate, did your client report you to the bar association for being 10 minutes late* again?” to get back to him, as well as spread to every opposing counsel in your case, as well as hit every clerk, judge, and security guard in the courthouse, without anybody technically breaking any rules.

*I know it’s much more nuanced than that, but it won’t matter once it’s gossip.

Bar associations (and international equivalents) don’t exist to help ordinary people manage their individual lawyers. They will weigh in on colleagues’ qualifications and investigate serious ethics complaints, and they take that role pretty seriously, but in the day-to-day, think of it as a fraternity or sorority of wealthy & competitive people who want to stay in each other’s good graces and stop anybody from doing anything too publicly embarrassing because it’s a profession that lives and dies by favors, relationships, and reputation. Human resources departments work for corporations, not employees, and bar associations work for lawyers, not clients.

Reporting Nate to the professional association by name – even if it was done with the best intentions with genuine questions from warranted frustrations – could be seen as messing with his reputation, and violating his trust – and that is a very big deal that affects not only your working relationship but your ability to find new lawyers if you had to. I ran just this part of your question informally & confidentially past a few legal-profession friends for a smell-test and their reaction was…um…shall we say…whatever is the opposite of “Oh, that’s a totally reasonable and normal thing to do, I would 100% want to keep representing that person in a complicated uphill legal battle after they reported me to the bar for something like that.” 

You clearly didn’t know, and you obviously can’t undo what’s already done, but I hope you can be more informed of the potential high stakes of bringing something to a lawyer’s professional association while you’re in the middle of litigation in the future, and you can be prepared to discuss it with Nate if it comes up.

If he already knows and hasn’t mentioned it, he probably won’t (file it under the general heading of ‘I’m not sure you respect my work’ and ‘let’s stay focused’) so your best bet is to leave it entirely alone and stay focused on moving forward. If it does come up in the future, your best strategic position is probably : “I am so sorry, I’m new to all of this and I was looking for guidance on what was normal, professionally, without bothering you more about it, and I had absolutely no idea it could hurt you.” Do not try to turn it into another discussion about his professionalism. Apologize, even if you feel like you have nothing to apologize for, because a strategic apology gets you closer to winning your case, and nobody ever has to know if it reached the corners of your eyes or the meaty center of your heart.

Ok, that’s what I’ve got, I hope this makes you feel more informed and like you have more options to reclaim your time and your control of your case. I wish you all the luck with the legal proceedings and a less stressful working relationship with your attorney while you ride them out.