One of the reasons lawyers take on far more than they should is because they haven’t learnt the art of saying “no”: to an unreasonable workload, to getting the work finished within an unreasonable timeframe and to work which they don’t have the skills or resources to do. This comes with a heavy price for lawyers’ wellbeing.
For the perfectionist lawyer, saying “no” seems like an admission of failure or frailty. High achieving and service-focused, lawyers want to be perceived as helpful, co-operative team players, ever ready to solve their clients’ or their bosses’ problems. Saying “no” doesn’t fit their image of themselves.
However, on a practical level, saying yes too often isn’t tenable for the individual lawyer, for their employer or its clients and in fact sends the reverse message. Critically, in terms of the wellbeing of individual lawyers, never saying “no” sends the wrong message about their worth to others — and importantly, to themselves — reducing their perceived value, rather than increasing it.
Saying yes constantly reduces lawyers to turning in ever decreasing circles. Lawyers need to find a way to say “no” when they need to. They have a whole professional toolbox at their disposal. They just need to adapt the spanners.
Lawyers are used to telling people things they don’t want to hear. It goes with the territory. They can’t change tack because the client doesn’t like the advice — often lawyers think of “the law” as the third person in the discussion. Lawyers need to think of the (very good) reason they are saying “no” to a request as the third person in that discussion — it will strengthen and guide the delivery and the resolve.
Also invaluable is the “pre-emptive “no” — defining parameters for the road ahead. Managing expectations is a powerful tool and defining a “no” upfront eases the way.
In-house lawyers often utilize a pre-emptive “no”, necessitated by the physical and professional proximity of their internal clients, by specifying the format and timeframes in which instructions need to be given. Whilst lawyers in practice don’t have the same leeway, there’s no doubt that this can and should be be adapted to external clients.
The pre-emptive “no” can also work wonders in saying “no” to a boss. A junior lawyer might agree, at her staff review, that she will only take on employment law matters going forward. When yet another commercial lease lands on her desk, it’s much easier to say “no”. This might sound like a big ask but demonstrating to your boss that you can fight your own corner delivers a powerful message about your ability to fight your clients’.
Saying “no” (certainly at first) will take courage. What lawyer doesn’t need courage in his work? Knowing courage is needed will make the path to “no” smoother. Like anything uncomfortable, saying “no” takes practice. Having trial runs of a specific, real life “no” with the dogs, kids, or an empty room can work
The means and method of delivery of the “no” is critical for its success. It is important to show respect by being clear and honest with the person making the request (never harsh or hesitant), to listen carefully, take time to consider and ultimately to explain why it can’t be done. Just like in a negotiation meeting …
Finally, it’s important to understand that there may well be a fall out from saying “no”. That is each individual lawyer’s decision point — driven by their personal values, goals and individual circumstances.
Nobody ever said a career in the law was easy.
Polly Harding has practised as a commercial lawyer for more than twenty five years -in private practice and in-house. She now works as an executive coach and trainer, helping individual lawyers clear the inevitable hurdles of every legal career and showing law firms how to be the best service providers they can be.